It’s so hard for us to believe that it finally arrived… the last official photography trip for our Cheyenne River Fine Art Project. It’s been 13 incredible months of prairie vistas, hardscrabble buttes, sunsets and moonrises, storms and starshine, buffalo, horses and cattle, community gardens and aging homesteads, elders, teen athletes, veterans and rambunctious children, and countless heartfelt conversations, stories and laughter. And the journey, which has deepened our love and appreciation for South Dakota’s Cheyenne River reservation, came to a delightful conclusion with this last trip on August 30 to September 6.
Eagle Butte celebrates its annual powwow, rodeo and fair on Labor Day weekend, and we were on hand to capture the festivities: bareback horse racing, the rodeo, the powwow’s unusually large and vibrant 2012 grand entry, and the Main Street parade that truly celebrated this community’s mix of Lakota and ranching cultures. We added to our collection of portraits, including respected elders, powwow dancers, bronco riders, bareback relay racers, a fourth grade teacher and an entrepreneur who started her own preschool. One traditional dancer told us she never allowed photographs… but she would in this case, because she felt it was so important to support a project designed to share the beauty, hope and joy inherent in Cheyenne River life.
She honored us, as did Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th generation keeper of the sacred white buffalo calf pipe bundle. This kind, gracious man allowed us to photograph and interview him at his home in Green Grass, within sight of the sundance grounds and the pipe house… sacred ground to the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations. It was a tremendous privilege to visit this place, and to listen to Chief Looking Horse share a few of his stories.
It was bittersweet to leave Cheyenne River this time, knowing that our four-season photographic adventure had drawn to a close. Yet much work remains to be done: In conjunction with the Cheyenne River Youth Project and Four Bands Community Fund, we’re reaching out to young people across the reservation, encouraging them to submit their creative writing for inclusion in the book. Once the pieces of writing have been assembled later this fall, we’ll choose and edit the pieces selected for inclusion and then pair each piece with a photograph.
We also will be hiring a designer to assemble the book and soliciting quotes from a variety of printers to determine the final budget and time frame for production. So, yes, much remains to be done!
Reflecting on all of this, we headed south on 63 toward the reservation boundary at the Cheyenne River. As we crossed the bridge, we gazed at the ribbon of slow-moving, coffee-colored water meandering through its green and yellow valley… and spotted two deer standing in the middle of the channel, drinking and raising their heads to take in the Wakpa Wasté, the “good river” of the Lakota. No cars were in sight in either direction, so we stopped the car, and Richard jumped out to get the last shot.
And it was, indeed, the last shot. We felt strangely emotional, as if the universe were offering a parting gift.
Pilamaye, Cheyenne River. We hope to do you proud.