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America’s Native Prisoners of War: photographic documentary

Pine Ridge Reservation, USA


Since becoming interested in the plight of Aboriginal Australians forced into reservations in a country they once owned, I have frequently drawn comparisons with the Native Americans in the US. Drawing ethnographic comparisons between nations, although their histories may have developed in different places and on different timescales, helps us see where we went wrong and how to avoid similar problems in the future. It also helps us fix the problems we already have by giving us an outsider’s perspective.

Wašíču is the word framing Aaron Huey’s talk. It means not only white man or foreigner but also “the one who takes the best meat for himself” which is what white Americans and Australians have been doing for centuries. Aaron Huey tells Native American history through his photographic documentary, a plethora of horrendous living conditions, alcoholism, a 90% unemployment rate on reserves and disease. Cervical cancer and tuberculosis rates are through the roof and the mortality rate on reserves is the highest on the continent. School dropout is high and children are mostly raised by their grandparents because their parents fall prey to alcoholism and domestic violence.

Huey takes us through Native American history, which for him culminates at the massacre of December 29th 1890. This pivotal point, he says, leads to everything else which happened. Treaties have been broken. The US Indian population has reached an all-time low. Prisoners, he says, are still being born in POW camps long after the guards have gone. The white oppressors denounce them as killing each other while we watch, but they deny responsibility. Is this American responsibility? Should there be a call to action?

It seems that white American and Australians have a lot to learn from each other and perhaps photographic/ethnographic documentary is a good medium through which to do this. It is clear from Huey’s passionately emotional speech how he feels about this. Why do other Americans not? Have they dehumanized a whole section of the population, who don’t have the same rights as those in the world’s most “free” country?

Photographic documentary is very different from film. Although photographs can in themselves tell stories, we have to look much deeper to discover them. So when a story is so painfully, blindingly obvious as it is through Huey’s photos, we must read it as a statement that the responsibility must not simply be shifted from institutions’ shoulders, hiding behind treaties and laws, but taken deep into the hearts of every American, just as Huey has done.



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