Forty years ago, a caravan of more than 50 cars full of demonstrators pulled into Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. That day marked the beginning of a 71-day occupation led by members of the Oglala Lakota tribe and followers of the American Indian Movement, attempting to address long-standing grievances — not only with the U.S. government but also with tribal leaders.
Over those 71 days, Pine Ridge was effectively barricaded from the outside world. Electricity was turned off even though it was winter, and food and medical supplies were halted. Two Native Americans and one FBI agent died before the standoff ended.
A young Owen Luck got there on the fourth day. He had been a medic in the Vietnam war and was a fledgling photojournalist. “I had very little experience and this would be considered my first shoot,” he says.
Forty years later, we chatted on the phone about the photos he took at Pine Ridge while serving as a medic, and what he sees in them today.
“I see all the mistakes I made as a photographer,” he says with a laugh. Then he continues:
“I see people who have passed away. … We were all so young. There’s a photograph of me — and I was this skinny young guy. I’m hardly that person any more. I see the volunteers that showed up. … I remember being hungry and being cold. I remember being shot at. The camaraderie. I guess when I look, I feel very honored that I was allowed to participate.”
That’s the thing with Luck: he doesn’t consider himself an objective observer.
“I realize as I look back that I only photograph things that I want to participate in,” he says. “I wanted to learn through a lens that the communities would hold up for me to observe.”
Although he was one of countless photographers documenting the siege, his account is personal and intimate. Over the years, Luck has continued to focus on Native American issues, and has spent the past decade with tribes in the Pacific Northwest.
As for the 1973 Wounded Knee protests, he says he hasn’t discussed it with outsiders in years.
“I stopped talking about this with non-natives the same way I stopped talking about Vietnam with non-veterans. Trying to explain being there, to me, is like a woman trying to explain labor to a man.”
It may be impossible to understand the nuances unless you were there. But Luck’s photos take us one step closer.