The Digital Journalist
On the Reservation
September 2007

by Michael A. Shapiro

Pine Ridge Reservation knocks you on your ass. The feeling of oppression and poverty is ubiquitous and extreme. Of all the reservations in the country Pine Ridge, in South Dakota, is the poorest and the Oglala Indians are the most beaten down. They talk about how they've been screwed and they talk about how they'd like to live but, somehow, nothing changes.

J.J. Winters at home on the Pine Ridge Reservation. That night he was arrested for being disorderly at home and the next day he had an accident as he returned home; an ambulance delivered him to the emergency room. Like many others on the reservation, he is an alcoholic.
I lived in relative luxury in a large basement bedroom of a double-wide trailer that houses the Children's Village, a shelter for abused and neglected children. The Winters family who runs the shelter is extended and most of the family members (with notable exceptions) are involved in health or legal care for members of the tribe. The family is one of the few shining lights on the reservation. Melvina and Louis Winters together have run Children's Village for 25 years and have taken in over 4,000 abused or abandoned children. They were recently awarded the Jefferson Service Award at a banquet in Washington, D.C.

Living with the family provided me access to a microcosm of the rez, because many family members suffer with diabetes, accidents and illness have taken many of their lives and the effects of alcoholism are seen everyday. One afternoon I handed J.J., the 30-year-old son of the couple who actually run the Village, eight dollars to buy cigarettes at the local store. He didn't come back until the next day, having spent the money on liquor instead of smokes.

Having made it home, he left again for several hours and came back just as I was going to bed. He was a little belligerent but nothing major. Later, during the night, however, he was rowdy enough that his mom called the cops and had J.J. put in jail. I probably should have sensed something might happen and stayed up all night to get that picture of the cops hauling him away, but who knew?

The next morning J.J. called to say he was out of jail and would be right home. Two hours later a family friend called to say that J.J. had fallen out of a pickup onto his head and was in an ambulance on its way to the hospital. Ironically, this was my lucky break. I had gone to Pine Ridge to document health care (or lack thereof) on the reservation and had been having trouble with access to the hospital. It's federally run and there's more security than health care.

J.J.'s wife Melissa wipes a tear from his eye in the emergency room. J.J., on his way home from jail, drunkenly fell out of a pickup truck onto his head. J.J. is unemployed; he and Melissa live with his parents.
I drove J.J.'s mom and his wife Melissa to the hospital and, as a family member, got access to the ER. This provided me with what I needed for my story: shots of security guards, people in the waiting room and poignant shots of J.J.'s wife tenderly touching his head and holding his hand. (J.J. and Melissa live at Louis and Melvina's because J.J., like most of the men on the reservation, doesn't have a job and Melissa is making less than minimum wage at her new job at Taco John's.) Later, when J.J. was released I made some photos of him sitting with his crutches and bandages looking like the embodiment of hopelessness.

As usual when visiting Pine Ridge, I came away feeling hopeless myself and wondered what could be done to solve the problems. Apparently, one of former Senator Tom Daschle's aides spent some time at the rez and committed suicide soon thereafter. Apparently Daschle himself sends personal money every month to help keep the Children's Village afloat.

I sent a few queries to some of the bigger newspapers and magazines regarding publishing the photo essay but was told across the board that it wasn't of major importance or relevance. I contacted NPOs for help and was told that Pine Ridge wasn't on the list of funding endeavors.

At this point, a year after I was last there, the 57 photos are unpublished and doing nothing to help anyone at Pine Ridge; it remains the poorest spot in the U.S.A.

© Michael A. Shapiro

Michael A. Shapiro is an American photographer who has been engaged in documentary projects and fine-art photography for the last eight years. You can see his work at

Dispatches are brought to you by:
canon - dispatches