Can This Photo Speak the Native American Story?

south dakota 011

This building pulled us off US 12 as we were traveling though South Dakota. It was in a small town of 68 residents (obtained from the town’s web site) in the middle of nowhere. At least it felt like that to me because this was new scenery. For the 68 people who live here it is somewhere – the somewhere they live in.

Since I was there last summer, this building has haunted me. I have wondered what the story is. I’m sure that the residents know the story, but we didn’t ask, and this made it possible for me to wonder and think and come to my own conclusions. Conclusions that were wrong – but still stimulated me to hear new voices telling old stories..

The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge this week invites us to post a photo of an object – one that might tell a story. Storytelling is a powerful potential of photography. In photojournalism it is important to make sure the photos are an accurate portrayal of the reality of the story being told. In artistic photography there is a lot more latitude to leave the story untold so the viewer’s mind can be stimulated to create a story and to explore divergent paths of discovery.

Here is the reality behind this object. It is in Morristown, South Dakota, a community that celebrated its centennial in 2008. A small sign on the building’s front says Community Building. It drew me off the highway because it has the look of an old school house that is much bigger than the community would seem to need. How quickly I diverge from the known facts.

Here is where this object took me in the 6 or so months since I photographed it. Here is the story I have been exploring – the story that diverged from this building’s untold story. I believe it was once a school, because of its shape, having two doors in the front (at my schoolhouse I lined up at the girl’s door) and the bell tower. I wondered if it was one of the many schools that were established to educate Native Americans but it isn’t on the “official” list of where these schools were located. Many of these schools were set up by religious organizations, some by the government. All of them were designed to help Native Americans change their ways, their culture, so they could better assimilate into the European culture of the US. This “education” has the hallmarks of cultural and ethnic cleansing, no matter how noble the intentions were. This is hard for us (of the white culture) to hear – especially since it didn’t happen all that long ago. Within my lifetime.

My daughter suggested I read Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. It isn’t an easy read because the plot was foreign to my “white” ears. It took me about two-thirds of the way through before I could hear the story, feel the tempo, discern why I couldn’t pick up the plot. Silko lived this story and she tells it from her oral history heritage. It helped me emotionally understand, for the first time, the spiritual tie and power Native Americans experience within the natural world. I have heard about it for a very long time, but never in this way. Now I can come closer to experiencing that connection – although I never will completely because I wasn’t raised within this culture. The cultural patterns and stories and intelligence aren’t a part of my DNA. It could have been, but how and where and when I was raised gave me a different cultural pattern and stories and intelligence. Maybe with diligent effort I can nurture some of this “natural world” intelligence back.

Some Native Americans are appreciative of the efforts to educate for assimilation – it helped them be successful in the dominate European culture of the US. Some believe it was a dismal failure. I tend to think it is bad politics to take away the best environments from a group of people, so they have no means to maintain their cultural customs and ways of supporting themselves, and to then tell them that their culture is bad and they need to believe like the defeating culture. It doesn’t fit my standards of justice, fairness, and respect. It makes me angry and my anger usually is a sign that something has been taken from me or someone I love.

I know it is possible to care about people I don’t know and be angered about injustices towards them. This is a part of my anger. I suspect the anger also boils up because of a personal loss, the loss of something I never had. Is there a longing in me for this sense of oneness with creation? I know it doesn’t threaten my Christian value system because God calls me to respect and be at peace with His creation. If I allow myself to think about it, I feel the frustration of my desire for this spiritual connection with nature, while experiencing this desire being in conflict with the “developed” lifestyle I live. The one that treasures things more than life. Silko’s story of Creation is the story of this conflict.

The story lives on, even if the story isn’t accurate to this photograph of this building. To hear an example of how this story is living on for assimilated Native Americans, I urge you to read Michael Watson’s post “In a Sacred Manner.” It is powerful because Michael is very articulate in explaining the current experience of him and his friends. Here is the link.

7 thoughts on “Can This Photo Speak the Native American Story?

  1. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find
    this matter to be really something which I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get
    the hang of it!


  2. Thank you for linking to me! This is a marvelous post, about a complex and difficult issue. Telling the truth behind the facade is one way to embrace those who went through the Hell that was so many of the schools.


    • Thank you, Michael, for being a part of my thinking during the past while. What I find hard is telling the truth in a way that most people will be willing to listen to. And of course there are some who just don’t want to hear. It pains me that people choose to work with children when their hearts are so hard and behavior so mean. Please keep writing.


  3. I do not know any that are glad for it. I only know that it was horribly abusive having families yanked apart and beaten with all honor of who they were and what things meant to them. I thank you for sharing what you do not know. It is difficult to locate a truth in these his-stories as perspective and the passing influence shifts them all.


    • Your description rings closer to the truth to me. Some websites did give both perspectives so I thought it only fair to present both. Thanks for your comment, Elisa. I really appreciate it.


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