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Photo Essay

Photos: Here's what life is like on an Indian reservation

One journalist spent a week on a reservation in America documenting crime, history and the harsh terrain. Here’s what he saw.

THE WIND RIVER Indian Reservation is not an easy place to get to – but one reporter had to see it for himself.

Thirty-five-hundred square miles of prairie and mountains in western Wyoming, the reservation is home to bitter ancestral enemies: the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.

Even among reservations, it’s renowned for brutal crime, widespread drug use, and legal dumping of toxic waste.
But no matter how much you hear about Wind River, there always seemed to be something unsaid. Business Insider reporter Robert Johnson spent over a week there and in the nearby towns, and described it as “perhaps the most dramatic and unbalanced place I’ve ever been”.

In the following photographs he documents what he saw from his week-long stay, in an effort to portray the plight and the perils of these forgotten tribes.

The Wind River reservation in central Wyoming is surrounded by a landscape most people have never seen.

As you get closer to the reservation, it’s hard to miss the railroad that’s been steaming through here for over 100 years.

Signs like this memorialise a vicious event carried out in 1864 when a group of Indian soldiers left their camp under a flag of truce to go and make peace with US troops. When the soldiers left a US Army colonel swept in and murdered the estimated 163 women and children left behind. Throughout the reservation there are many memorials to the people who died.

The Wind River reservation itself  covers 3,500 square miles where the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes were forced by the US to share the land in 1868. Before being forced to share the reservation, the two tribes had been enemies. Wind River is so large that it surrounds a handful of towns on all sides. Strangely, this makes it feel even more remote than it is.

With so much space and hardly a neighbour for miles, you might think Wind River was a peaceful place where native culture quietly carries on into the modern day. But you’d be wrong.

Wind River is in fact a particularly deadly place to call home. The locals refer to different streets by famously violent US locations like Compton in southern Los Angeles.

The New York Times came out here last year after the brutal murder of a 13-year-old girl by her brother and a friend at this trailer. The pictures are blurry because when I raised the camera to take them, the school teacher who was showing me the reservation screamed that I was going to get us killed. She did not view this as an exaggeration. She seemed genuinely terrified.

Wind River may also be one of the most actively polluted places in the United States. An investigation last year revealed that oil companies operating on the reservation are using a legal loophole to justify allowing oil wastewater to flow freely into open pits on Wind River.  The toxins end up in water used by Wind River ranchers, and winds up in the cattle.

The beef from the cattle is part of the wide selection of fresh meat here at a store in the centre of the Reservation. Interestingly, the grocery store sells no alcohol. Neither do any of the reservation’s four casinos.

The dry Reservation is an effort to keep alcoholism and the domestic issues that follow it at bay.

The closest place to get a drink is here, at a bar just off the reservation. Behind the steel door are a couple of pool tables in a room wallpapered with centrefolds and pages from porn magazines.

The ‘no alcohol’ tactic hasn’t worked particularly well. One nearby park just outside the reservation has become a popular drinking spot among residents of Wind River. The teacher I am with says her student sometimes have to come here looking for their parents.

The school is near the park and I walk over to look around. Its central architectural feature is a representation of a gigantic tom-tom. Life here is heavy on tradition that fights with the present.

Drug use is rampant – from schoolkids sniffing deodrant, to alcoholism, to crystal meth. My guide says everything is for sale on the Reservation, in some way or another. Because there is so little law enforcement, crime is high and law breakers can hide almost indefinitely from police.

This traditional classroom once taught generations of Native Americans. The likelihood a student on the Reservation today will go on to complete college is slim. Anyone showing too much desire to leave is called an ‘apple’ by classmates: red on the outside but white within.

The most prominent European presence on the reservation is still the Catholic Church.

Like everything else, Catholicism on the Reservation is a blend of native belief and outside tradition.

Not far from the church is the Reservation’s community centre and post office.

The cultural centre forbids children from speaking English within its walls as it passes down the native dialect.

Residents of the Reservation benefit from some programmes funded by the government. Food is provided by this distribution centre and all residents receive monthly cheques from oil revenue.

There’s a fatalism here that’s hard to describe. A kind of unfocused anger. And, before I leave, I am told not to come back alone.

(All images: Robert Johnson – Business Insider Military and Defence)

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