From the time she was a young social worker on the Wind River Reservation 35 years ago, photographer Sara Wiles has been documenting the lives of the Arapaho people. In 2004, she also began to record the life stories of those she photographed. "Arapaho Journeys: Photographs and Stories from the Wind River Reservation," a High Plains Book Awards finalist in the Art and Photography division, collects 100 of Wiles’ photographs and 40 life stories. Together, they document the rich contemporary lives and traditions of a people who have lived in the Rocky Mountain region for hundreds of years.
One of the goals of Wiles’ project is to dispel widespread negative assumptions about Indian people. She created this book in part, she writes, “to confront ignorance and prejudice with information and understanding.” Using beautifully composed images of ordinary life coupled with unassuming personal narratives, Wiles offers an inviting glimpse into the ways native people struggle not merely to survive but to thrive. In a world where images of Native Americans often fall into one of two oversimplified categories—the noble savage or the pathetic victim of acculturation — she focuses instead on pictures that celebrate the abiding dignity of reservation life.
With quiet intensity, Wiles’ photographs capture the beauty of the everyday: the elderly Ada Whiteplume sitting outdoors shaping frybread on an old table, her fingertips dusted with flour; schoolgirl Malia Means loaded down with an Easter basket and grocery bag of toys; infant Mylan Glenmore adorned in full grass-dance regalia teetering in his baby walker; the Iron Cloud Drum Group seated on folding chairs around an enormous white drum, their faces bright with laughter; four radiant teenagers on a wooden stoop eating ice cream. And perhaps my favorite of the entire book, the photograph of Annie Martinia Bull, whose glowing face defies her bent, arthritic body. At her side, a naughty cat digs its long claws into her chair and stretches out its sinewy black and white body.
Particularly notable is Wiles’ thoughtfulness about the context and meaning of her work. While taking her photographs and recording people’s stories, she was careful to honor cultural values, follow proper etiquette and allow her subjects to add or alter the written text. While she does allow her photographs to be displayed, she does not sell them. Nor does she allow the images to be used on cards or to be any way commercialized. She is donating proceeds of Arapaho Dreams to the Wind River Tribal College.
This unusual book will be of interest to anyone who would like a better understanding of reservation life and the Arapaho people, or simply a closer view of one of the diverse communities of our region. It is a thoughtful, culturally sensitive work, that wonderfully fulfills Wiles’ aim to “show my friends and neighbors as they see themselves: as complex and dignified individuals living in a viable (if difficult) cultural, economic, and political environment.”
Danell Jones is a writer and scholar who has been teaching for more than 25 years. She earned her Ph.D. in English from Columbia University. She is the author of "The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing."