The Pine Ridge Billboard Project

The road across South Dakota is similar to its history – long, dark and sad. I have driven across this state the past 12 years and seen billboard images of casinos and parks. Wall Drug and Reptile Gardens. Happy white people and even happier white people. These are the images of the Black Hills. This is the result of cultural genocide. A whitewash of tourism in what was once considered the cradle of creation. Every step outside my door is a slight. My slow footsteps leave a mark of desecration. Working at a tutoring center that worked with 80-90 percent Native American youth, as an educational consultant and mediator and at the local public library, I see quite a bit of the effects American expansion had on a Native race and a culture. I see anger and sadness as well as determination and hope.

I spoke recently to a Native American programs coordinator over at a local college where she stated the drop out rate far exceeds the recruitment of Native Americans from the reservations. A small glimmer of hope was that the retention rate of college-goers was actually quite high with many of those drop-outs coming back to complete college degrees years later.

A few facts and figures from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation via this page.

  • 80 percent of residents are unemployed.
  • 49 percent of residents live below the Federal poverty line.
  • 61 percent of residents below the age of 18 live below the poverty line.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is located in Shannon County where its per-capita income makes it the second poorest county in the United States, at $6,286.
If the Oglala Sioux Tribe were to equally disperse revenues from the Prairie Wind Casino to all enrolled tribal members, each resident would receive $.15 per month.

  • The infant mortality rate is 5 times higher than the United States national average.
  • More than 4.5 million cans of beers are sold annually in White Clay, Nebraska, just over the border from the Pine Ridge Reservation. This amounts to more than 12,500 cans of beer a day. The reservation, itself, is dry.
  • Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease occur in epidemic proportions on the Pine Ridge.
  • Native Americans’ rate of amputations related to diabetes is 3 to 4 times higher than among the general United States population.
  • Death rates due to diabetes among Native Americans are 3 times higher than among the general United States population.
  • Unhealthy diets and lack of exercise are two main contributing factors behind these high numbers, despite the fact that in the early history of the Lakota, diabetes was virtually unknown.
  • Life expectancy on the Pine Ridge Reservation is the lowest anywhere in the western hemisphere, except for Haiti. A recent study found the life expectancy for men is 48 years, for women it is 52 years on the Reservation.

In the following Aaron Huey provides a guerilla poster campaign that needs to be started, especially in this state (cheers to South Dakota Magazine for picking this up too).

In 1980 the Supreme Court ruled upon the longest running court case in US History, the United States vs Sioux Nation. The court determined that the terms of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty had been violated when the Sioux were resettled onto P.O.W. camps, and 7 million acres of their land were opened up to prospectors and homesteaders. These camps are now called “reservations”.

The grim statistics on Native Reservations today are the equivalent to that of a 3rd world country, revealing the legacy of colonization and treaty violations. Unemployment on the Reservation fluctuates between 80-90%. Many are homeless, and those with homes are packed into rotting buildings with up to 5 families. More than 90% of the population lives below the federal poverty line. The life expectancy for men is 47 years old – roughly the same as Afghanistan and Somalia.

More than any project I have done in my career, the ever-evolving Pine Ridge project gives voice to social injustice and a forgotten history. I want my work to empower the Lakota and other tribes who fight for recognition of the past in order to help give them a chance to move forward.

Your involvement will help raise the visibility of these images by taking them straight to the public—to the sides of busses, subway tunnels, and billboards. I want people to think about prisoner of war camps in America on their commute to work. I want the message to be so loud that it cannot be ignored.

OUTLETS FOR ACTION: Through this campaign a website is forming at I hope to build this site up to become a point of reference for those who want to know more about the history and the (broken) treaties of the Sioux and other tribes. There will be direct links to assist grassroots Native non-profits in places like Pine Ridge. Our first partner is Owe Aku.



2 thoughts on “The Pine Ridge Billboard Project

  1. Boy, this one got me straight in the heart. The statistic that hit hardest was the one in the Red Cloud School link that said 15% of all the high school students in SD attempted suicide in the past 12 months. How Huey’s photographs can be so beautiful and contain so much sadness at the same time has to be a koan worth pondering. Good for you for giving such a great project some air time.

  2. This caused me much sadness. Heart-rending indeed, yet dignity and wisdom is still clearly reflected in the faces of these people. Somehow, that makes it so much worse as well as so much better.

Comments are closed.