Broken Treaties: Aaron Huey’s Pine Ridge Billboard Project

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Lakota Sioux, is ground zero for Native American Issues.  Best known to most Americans as the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, where some 300 men, women and children were slaughtered by US soldiers, today Pine Ridge is one of the poorest counties in America. The life expectancy of men is 47-years–the same as for men in Afghanistan and Somalia. The unemployment levels on the reservation are about 90%. Most people are living on just $3,000 a year.

For the past six years, photographer Aaron Huey has trained his camera on these problems. But, he says, it took him five years to understand what the real story was. “When I first went to Pine Ridge,” says Huey, “the focus was on getting pictures of gangs, superficial violence, drugs and extreme circumstances.” It wasn’t until he was asked to present a TED talk that he pieced together the history–For the first time he saw the reality–how the land was stolen from the Lakota through a series of massacres disguised as battles, and the broken treaties that followed. “It was,” says Huey, “a calculated and systematic destruction of a people.”

To spread the message about the broken treaties–and let people know “where the statistics come from,” says Huey–the photographer has devised an ambitious plan. Collaborating with two artists, Ernesto Yerena and Shepard Fairey, (the latter is best known for his portrait for Obama’s “Hope” campaign), Huey is creating a nationwide billboard campaign. And giving the street artists no-holds-barred access to his work to design it. “I told them they can cut them up,” says Huey, “and put them together, however they want.”

He wants to put these collaborations on billboards, subway platforms and buses. “I want to shift people’s attention to outlets for action,” says Huey explaining that the posters direct potential donors to grass roots Native organizations, as well information on standing treaties between tribes and the US government, and details about broken treaties.

To print posters and rent space on billboards, Huey is looking to raise $30,000 through crowd funding site Emphas.is. “So many crowd-sourcing projects are vanity book projects or fundraisers for gallery shows. I wanted to do more than that,” says Huey. “I feel like The Lakota deserve better.”

So far Huey’s raised nearly $14,000 and has been using his own credit cards to start printing. If he falls short of his fund raising goal on Emphas.is, Huey hopes his supporters will help him by pasting up posters up in their own communities. “I’m looking for partners, not just donors.” says Huey. “I want help in the form of boots on the ground.”

While Huey is careful to state that he is not an “activist,” he has certainly moved his photojournalism to another level. “I realized my role was to be an amplifier for the Lakota’s message,” says Huey. “And at the end of the day, they wanted people to hear that they want their treaties honored.”

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