When Aaron Huey first visited South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in 2005, he didn’t expect that it would be a world-altering experience.

He began the project as an objective photojournalist’s look at poverty in America. But after spending eight years documenting the residents of Pine Ridge, his professional and personal outlook has changed dramatically.

Once Huey became embedded in the community and started talking to the people there, he knew the mechanisms of traditional journalism wouldn’t suffice to do the type of work he wanted to do with the Lakota people.

Huey’s talk at TEDxDU in Denver in 2010, which presented a history of Lakota relations with the United States government alongside his photographs, represented the first in a series of steps toward a larger commitment to the Lakota and a personal shift away from the observational perspective often associated with photojournalism.

Since then, Huey’s extensive work on the subject has included a National Geographic cover story about Pine Ridge, a street art collaboration with Shepard Fairey and Ernesto Yerena, a storytelling project, and a nonprofit organization called Honor the Treaties that funds collaborations between Native American artists and Native American advocacy groups. His book, Mitakuye Oyasin, which was published by Radius Books in July, is perhaps just the tip of the iceberg of Huey’s work with the Lakota.

Riders take a break during a day of activities to mark the 1876 defeat of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. 

“The whole book was almost more like a prayer or a poem than a documentary. It was like a ceremony, and I didn't realize it until the end. I didn't experience that place in a linear way and, at the end of the day, I didn't want to put it together in that way,” Huey said. “It's a big stack of images that a lot of people wish there was more explanation for and I didn't want to give it. I didn't want to walk everybody through every image.”

Stanley Good Voice Elk, a heyoka, burns sage to ritually purify his surroundings. In Oglala spirituality, heyokas are recipients of sacred visions who employ clownish speech and behavior to provoke spiritual awareness and “keep balance,” says Good Voice Elk. Through his mask, he channels the power of an inherited spirit, which transforms him into Spider Respects Nothing.

In 2006 Oliver Red Cloud, now 94 years old, sits in the back of the pickup leading the annual Oglala Nation Pow Wow parade in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. 

Olowan Thunder Hawk Martinez cooks in the tepee where she lived for a time with her son, her two daughters, and various other young Oglala Lakota. Martinez is a leader in the local chapter of the Native Youth Movement, a small group dedicated to resistance. “We're fighting for our land, our people, and our way of life,” Martinez says. 

It's graduation day at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Nine of the school's students were among the thousand recipients of 2011 Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium scholarships.

Lenny Jumping Eagle rides in a celebration of the defeat of Colonel Custer in the Battle of the Greasy Grass (the Battle of the Little Bighorn), June 25-26, 1876. Every year dozens of long-distance rides or horse races on and beyond the reservation commemorate great leaders, sacred lands, and historic events.

Participants in the 14th annual Crazy Horse Ride gather in Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The ride takes place early in June and ends four days and roughly 80 miles later on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior and among the most iconic of Native American leaders, was killed at Fort Robinson on September 5, 1877, while allegedly resisting arrest. A riderless horse goes with the group to carry his spirit back to his people in Pine Ridge. It is said that as Crazy Horse lay dying, his last words were, "When you see the Black Hills, if you can think of me."

After intense communication with the spirits, participants emerge from a steaming inipi, or purification (sweat) lodge. This ceremony was held by Rick Two Dogs, a medicine man descended from American Horse.

With the reverence afforded a sacred being, Oglala men fell a specially chosen cottonwood tree and carry it to the center of a Sun Dance circle. Erected in the earth, the tree will become the focus of a days-long spiritual ceremony. Sun Dances and other traditional ceremonies have undergone a resurgence since the 1970s.

A sacred tree decorated with prayer flags is raised in preparation for a Sun Dance ceremony. Rick Gray Grass says the Sun Dance is a way to give back "to the creator, to our ancestors, for a way of life and for all the help and guidance we ask for."

A woman prays beside a sacred Sun Dance tree after the ceremony has ended. During the Sun Dance a medicine man guides certain men in making a solemn offering. They are attached to the ropes by bone pegs piercing their chests or backs and must tear themselves free. The colorful ties on the tree contain tobacco and other offerings and represent prayers for the people and for all of creation.

Nine-year-old Wakinyan Two Bulls places prayer flags in a tree near Mato Tipila (“bear lodge”), or Devils Tower, in Wyoming. The story of the Oglala—their spirituality and their fight to remedy old wrongs—goes well beyond the Pine Ridge Reservation. 

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