To Aaron Huey:
It has come to my attention that some Indigenous women on Twitter have critiqued you about the fact that you took photographs of Lakota ceremonies for National Geographic. It has also come to my attention that you made unsolicited contact with those women in your own defense. Here, in case you deleted it from your memory too, is a record of what you tweeted:
I would like to express to you not only my agreement with their critiques, but the personal offense that I take at how aggressively you have imposed yourself on them regarding this matter. They have every right to critique you, and do not require your permission or approval to say what they like to each other about something you did that impacted their community– but this letter does not speak for them, only for me. I am asking you, personally, to immediately desist in flexing your perceived authority with them, as it is a function of your racial privilege over Indigenous people. You are flexing that privilege now with your refusal to “allow” critique of your work, just as you did when you published photographs of ceremony against the community’s expressed wishes.
Your projects on the Lakota Nation provoke many questions. For example, why is it that you felt depicting ceremony was so indispensable to your project? Ceremony is sacred and intimate, and at the same time, it is a focus of fetishization and commodification by non-Natives. It is not necessary to document ceremony and expose it to that fetishization in order to represent Pine Ridge positively. In spite of hardship and material poverty, the place is electric with life, laughter, endurance, growth, love, and power, not just in ceremony but in the unsung mundane moments of everyday life. Did you skip the gatherings that occur after ceremony, where people talk and joke and reminisce with their families and friends? They are much less exotic, and less marketable than the ceremony itself, but just as telling of the profound bonds, support, and tradition that exist in the community.
What about the poets, the artists and fashion designers creating breathtaking contemporary work from their traditional techniques and aesthetics, or the competitive dancers who bead their own regalia, or the rodeo riders and basketball players? Did you miss the Oglala Nation college where community members can get practical degrees, and educations based on their traditional ways?
Every aspect of Lakota life reveals the resurgence of their nation, and the coexistence of old and modern ways, yet you captured and shared the one thing you were explicitly told was not to be captured and shared. When you published those intimate moments and harnessed them to “redeem” the Lakota from the box your first project put them in, you took advantage of the generosity that was granted to you when you were permitted to even enter that sacred space. I submit that, whether you were conscious of it or not, this focus on ceremony is related to the marketability of Native peoples to non-Native audiences as an exotic commodity.
It is partly for this reason that your actions are suspect. The exoticism projected onto Native ceremony by the hegemonic non-Native gaze is presented by you, and vicariously lends the feelings evoked in the viewer to your work, and thus to you. “The Sun Dance has rarely been photographed” is an all but explicit homage to whatever qualities supposedly make you exceptional enough to be chosen as the one who will be, to use the widely-detested cliché, the “voice of the voiceless.” And while those exact words were not yours, you failed to guard against the inevitability that your work would be presented that way, and instead have played directly into it. This is not about the inherent flaws of journalism in communicating different perspectives, nor about what Pine Ridge is or is not. This is about how you have conducted and continue to conduct yourself. Regardless of your intent–which is irrelevant– analyzing the context of your visit and the work itself indicate that this project is no more than a badge for you to wear as an artist, masquerading as an attempt to “help” Native people while providing fodder for cultural voyeurs who hold their own curiosity in higher regard than community wishes. You may recognize this as a manifestation of the classically problematic white savior complex.
There is a strong sentiment among Native people that, in light of everything that has been lost and stolen, it is more important than ever that their sacred ways are to be protected. I have heard disgust expressed many times over the fact that settlers have taken over the land, tried to exterminate cultures, and now attempt to take ownership over the very ways they tried to wipe out. External assertion of ownership over a community and their stories is, in itself, another form of erasure. It allows that community to become co-opted and redefined, created anew through a distorted lens. It asserts that the broader world no longer has to look to the actual people to get to know them, they can simply look to the external project. This is exactly what you did when you published photographs of ceremony—not to mention the original myopic and harmful representations that those images responded to. You continue to assert your own project as the representation of Lakota people. You are on record in the New York Times saying “Now you can [see all of what they are],” when in fact all we can see is another externally crafted representation (and, in a sense, photographic evidence of socially-ingrained white entitlement).
To document ceremony against explicit directives is an enactment of a ubiquitous settler privilege that says Native people’s ownership over their own identities, cultures, and traditions is less important than our right to learn from them, or our “burden” to save them whether they want it or not. Your glib remark about “needing enemies” also reflects that racial privilege, by demonstrating what you are capable of failing to see. The privilege to have the negative impacts of racism absent from your daily life makes it possible for you to make a statement like that. It rests on ignorance of the sheer number and magnitude of social and institutional obstacles working against Native people in America–a fact that means the last thing in the world they would need or seek is another enemy. Indeed, they did not seek you out, you came to their front door. So when you address these Indigenous women as if they were irrationally combative, you demean them and erase the truth, both of their reality and of your own behavior.
Even the responses you offered indicate your unawareness of how this privilege impacts your life and your career. The project that you used as a defense in that conversation appears to feature cherry-picked messages from Lakota people, curated by you, which support and validate both your position and your work. Since you remain charged by National Geographic with compiling this collection, it is crucial that you analyze and understand how your choices reveal your bias. What you erase is just as important as what you show, and that project and the interactions you have sought out on twitter indicate that you are highly invested in silencing criticism. You have a social responsibility to consider whether it is really of any use to provide a platform to Native people if community outsiders are curating that platform in a manner that suits their own agenda.
This makes it even more disgraceful that you would approach Native women unsolicited on twitter, who were trying to have a conversation about how what you did impacted their community, and aggressively intrude in defense of yourself. In truth, they are familiar with your perspective and motives. They have seen your behavior patterns more times than you can imagine. You, however, appear unfamiliar with theirs. If you are familiar, you are clearly dismissing their realities and prioritizing your own—but I hope not, as that would be ethnocentric. You have, however, defensively shoved your way into their conversation instead of listening with humility and trying to really form a dialogue by moving beyond your certainty that everything you do, when well-intended, must be correct.
This is not an attempt on my part to stand up for those women. They are more than capable of standing up to you for themselves if they choose, although you have not shown them the respect they deserve for that. The authority and power vested by this colonial nation in your respective social positions, as a white man and indigenous women, makes them Davids to your Goliath. How you have wronged them, though, is for them to tell you, if they want. I am addressing the wrong your actions do me, as another white person.
Continuing to assert your righteousness and press this issue as you have is effectively a fight to defend your privilege to prioritize with them your agenda in regard to their people. That is a function of racial privilege, and when you defend your own racial privilege, you defend mine as well. I find this not just a moral offense, but an obstacle to me, considering the importance to my own white identity of anti-racist work. Every time a project like yours dubiously asserts authority on “the Other” and is publicly validated in powerful platforms like National Geographic, it is a hundred steps back for every step forward I try to make for myself and the world.
I understand the discomfort inherent in privileged American identity when confronted with the existence of oppression. I understand the desire to do something helpful. It’s a way to reconcile the context of our existence. But that’s exactly why it’s so important to resist falling into traps like saviorism, traps that make us feel better but actually reinforce the obstacles faced by the people we are trying to support. It is our social and moral obligation to resist and deconstruct our racial privilege wherever and whenever we can, and because that privilege is reinforced so strongly in the world, that requires discipline. If you want to help, it takes work. Not like a project, but real work on yourself and how you perceive and engage with the world around you. It takes restraining your feelings and realizing when they are not the issue. It takes understanding when and with whom to de-prioritize your own agenda, however positive that agenda may seem. It takes respect and humility, and a certain amount of doing what you’re told whether it makes sense to you or not.
And yes, that is an explicit reference to the fact that you photographed ceremony (individual permission or lack thereof aside) when you knew the pervasiveness of the conviction that ceremony is not to be photographed. That was an unethical thing to do, but it was three years ago and the damage has already been done. What I am asking you now is to see how you are perpetuating damage at this moment by imposing yourself on these Indigenous women, members of a community you have capitalized on, for expressing to each other legitimate critiques of your work and your actions. If they had wanted to engage you in conversation, they would have contacted you directly. Regardless of what the New York Times says about you, your behavior toward them has indicated that you are not, in fact, a good listener, which could go a long way toward explaining why they may not have been interested in a “dialogue” with you in the first place.
I am asking you to understand, from one privileged social location to another, that it is incumbent on us to be disciplined and respectful in our work on deconstructing racism. While it is true that racism is about history and institutional obstacles and active personal dislike, it is also how we as individuals treat each other and what we take for granted as excusable or standard behavior. It is about what we expect from the world and from ourselves, and what we feel is within our rights to do regarding other people. You clearly feel entitled to push your way into a conversation between two Indigenous women, and rather than show contrition for that or for your original wrongdoing, you have only fought back. That is not helpful, it’s damaging. I am asking you now to desist in imposing your agenda on Indigenous people, both publicly and privately. That is how you can start to be helpful.
With undying hope and best wishes,
(UPDATE 4/18: I would like to stress that there is reason to believe Rick may not have approved publication of any photos of ceremony, only the rest of the photos in the set. Regardless, permission is irrelevant and this letter is not about him. Also, “Lakota inipi ceremony” has been changed to “Lakota ceremonies” because ceremonies besides Inipi were also photographed. After multiple reader requests, I have added screencaps of Dawn and Lauren’s tweets. References to Tanka have been removed for reasons not relevant to this discussion.)