“Heather, Richard and Matt’s book idea dovetails beautifully with our ongoing Circle of Storytellers oral-history project with elders, as well as with our new writing group for teens,” says Julie Garreau, executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Text in the upcoming coffee-table book will include memories recounted by elders who’ve visited the youth center to talk to kids in its after-school programs and writings about life on the reservation by teens working since September with youth-programs instructor Megan Guiliano. “The idea is to bring the Lakota oral tradition into the 21st century,” Garreau says.
Magazine writer Heather Steinberger and photographers Richard Steinberger and Matt Normann are producing the high-end volume and will seek a publisher; they plan to have the book in stores by 2013. The photographers have already made two trips to the Cheyenne River Reservation to capture images of its vast and varied landscape, which covers 2.8 million acres in north-central South Dakota.
All the book project’s participants hope to create something that will give the tribe’s elders a sense of pride, according to Heather, who volunteered at the youth center in 2006 and soon joined its staff. “We want elders to feel honored. We’re not going to whitewash the hardships here, but we want to demonstrate to a wider audience that beauty, joy and hope can also be found.”
The Steinbergers, a husband-and-wife creative team living in Colorado, and Normann, a Wisconsin-based portrait photographer, meet in Eagle Butte every few months. “Everyone at Cheyenne River has been so welcoming,” says Matt, “We haven’t needed a ‘fixer,’ meaning the type of insider that reporters or photographers might use to smooth their way into a community they don’t know.”
Richard credits both the traditional hospitality of folks at Cheyenne River and Garreau’s support: “Julie is so well respected, and everyone knows she’s behind the project.”
When outsiders report on Indian country, they tend to focus on disaster and despair, Heather says. “The stories can end up [looking like] a collection of photo ops, with desperation as the theme.” But if you look more carefully, she says, you see community members already working hard to solve problems. “You’ll see strong families who care deeply for each other, have a great sense of community and love where they live,” she says. “This is who they are—pow wows, picnics, church socials. These profoundly positive aspects of life on the reservation will never change. I’ve heard Julie say that if you’re coming here to ‘save’ Cheyenne River, you’re wasting your time, but that if you want to work with the community to build on what’s already there, you can be part of accomplishing something worthwhile.”
Says Richard, “We hope the book will show the world a different view of this reservation—and perhaps of Indian country as a whole.”
The images produced so far, which can be seen on the project’s website, CheyenneRiverFineArt.com, show the incredible range of landscapes on the reservation, along with many of the engaging people who live there. “When people think of the prairie, they imagine flat grasslands,” says Heather. “But there’s so much more here.”
The project is inclusive. Jim Garrett, one of the tribal members whose portraits will appear in the book, told the creative team it would
find what he calls “prairie culture” at Cheyenne River, not just reservation life. “Jim said that with so much intermarriage over the years, there are all kinds of people with roots in the area,” recalls Heather. “Some settler families have been here for five generations, for example. So in addition to depicting tribal members, we’ll show ranchers or aspects of their lives, including portraits of them at work.”
“The first photographs were taken in August 2011, and we expect to do the last ones in September 2012,” Richard says, adding that one advantage of working over a long period of time is that they will be able to show the reservation in all seasons. “I recently came across an old homestead I know is going to be fantastic in midwinter, when I can emphasize the stark contrasts of the building against the snow.”
He estimates that he and Matt will shoot 100 images for every one they eventually use in the book.
Fifty percent of profits from sales will go to the Cheyenne River Youth Project to support operations, programming and family services; the remainder will defray the costs Normann and the Steinbergers have assumed. The photographs may also be shown in a traveling exhibition.
“We want everyone who sees this book to discover the beauty of this land and its people and to appreciate the stories that run deep here,” Heather says. “We want to open your eyes, then your hearts.”