Dale Picotte moved home after two tours in Afghanistan and started helping his family on the 2,500-acre cattle ranch on the Cheyenne River Reservation that his great-grandparents established in 1959. (Dawnee LeBeau) Jess Starr fixes his machinery before drilling holes and setting up fencing. Most ranchers are also skilled mechanics, electricians and carpenters. (Emily Schiffer)
Photographer Emily Schiffer has dedicated no small part of her career to documenting the lives of people living on the Cheyenne River Reservation. In September 2017, In Sight published some of that work: “Playful and poetic: The children of the Cheyenne River Reservation.” Schiffer’s work goes beyond the usual portrayals of poverty and alcohol addiction that many mainstream media outlets have published from that region and its people throughout the years.
Schiffer has continued documenting life on the reservation, and this time In Sight presents images she and collaborators Dawnee LeBeau and Sylvia Picotte have captured showing the life of ranchers there. Again, this work veers far from the typical: “These images portray an essential part of life on the Cheyenne River Reservation, which is often overlooked by outside media,” Schiffer has said.
In a statement to In Sight, Schiffer, LeBeau and Picotte tell us more about the project:
“At first glance, the cattle-dotted hills of the Cheyenne River Reservation’s ranches are indistinguishable from other Midwestern landscapes. But those four-thousand square miles are the product of a different narrative. These images offer a window into the specific culture that exists there, which includes a diversity of people and a way of life that is a lesser known America: a small rural reservation community, where tribal and non-tribal ranchers work hard for the survival of their herds in a harsh, unforgiving climate.
"Today, the Cheyenne River Reservation spans 2.8 million acres. The tribe owns roughly 1 million acres within the reservation boundaries, and approximately 400,000 acres are owned by individual Native Americans. Of the tribally owned land, an estimated 940,000 acres are leased to tribal member ranchers. The remaining land is deeded to non-Natives who live on inherited plots that trace back to the 1909 Homestead Act — which broke the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty by allowing settlers to claim tribal land. Many Native ranchers took up ranching in the 1940s and ‘50s after 104,000 acres of tribal trust land was flooded for the creation of the Oahe Dam, which now provides electricity to Midwestern states. This flooding, another broken treaty, was devastating for the Tetonwan Oyate (Lakota) people. Burial grounds and medicinal herbs, scarce elsewhere on the plains, were lost to the flooding. The US government relocated families to higher, less fertile ground and incentivised ranching by offering loans of farm equipment, land, and cattle through the government funded Rehab and Relocation Program.
"Perhaps because people can so clearly trace their histories, and because both populations regularly intermarry, both histories are recognized. People depend on each other because they couldn’t survive otherwise. Ranching is back breaking year-round labor. But with the increasing number of corporate farms in other parts of the country, most ranchers take on extra work to carry them through the unpredictability of farming profits. Still they choose to stay and continue ranching, and they choose to raise their children on the reservation, where ranching families in general and white families in particular are the minority.
"Cattle ranching remains an important industry in South Dakota over 100 years after the 1909 Homestead Act was signed into law. Yet the viability of family farming is diminishing. Unlike their better known and wealthier counterparts in Texas, South Dakota ranches are small, family owned operations, which generate only modest income. The rolling hills and arid soil of the Cheyenne River Reservation don’t lend themselves to industrialized agriculture. Ranching families are faced with the dilemma of continuing in an industry they can’t keep up with, or leaving the only way of life they’ve known. Many young people from ranching families leave the reservation to pursue more lucrative work. Those who remain are steadfast in their dedication. This project follows three ranching families to explore the history of ranching on the Cheyenne River Reservation.”
(This work was funded by a grant from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit.)
“I’m always interested in our history,” James Picotte said. “It’s here in our land where our relatives live. There’s no written history. It’s passed down orally, so being able to preserve that history is central to who we are. My favorite part of ranching is being to be able to work outside. I’m out there just enjoying the land, enjoying the different species of plants and flowers. I like to identify the plants I see, what they’re good for. There are lots of different medicines at different times of the year. Just knowing that they’re still there is important. That’s the difference between ranching and farming. Farmers use herbicides, which kill medicinal plants. They put the land into a different state. But ranching allows the natural vegetation to thrive.” (Dawnee LeBeau) Ginny Webb and her three children collect eggs from their chickens. The chickens lay about a dozen eggs a day, far more than the Webb family can eat, so they donate them to places including the local seniors home and food pantry. (Emily Schiffer) Sylvia Picotte relaxes at home with the newspaper. (Dawnee LeBeau) Neighbor Joe Rose helps Jim Picotte brand calves. (Sylvia Picotte) Aaron Webb feeds a pasture full of pregnant cows. The Webb family has about 250 head. Grain provides more calories and sugar than dry hay, giving the cows more energy while they are pregnant or nursing. Grain helps provide complete nutrition when grass is unavailable during the winter. During the summer they eat only wild grasses and don’t need supplemental grain or hay. (Emily Schiffer) James Picotte and his brother work on one of their vehicles. (Dawnee LeBeau) "Ranching isn't what it used to be. My father-in-law supported a family of seven by raising and selling pigs, cows and sheep," Ginny Webb said. "Now, unless you're a big commercial farm, you really can't support yourself through the ranch alone. Livestock prices are too volatile, and the world is just too damn expensive." (Emily Schiffer) Jess Starr and his father, Vernon, build fences in a pasture close to Starr's home. The two live on adjacent properties and work closely together to run their family ranch. (Emily Schiffer) Three-year-old Abbie assists her father and a close family friend as they treat calves during the spring branding season. A branding table requires fewer people to get the job done and is easier on the calves. (Emily Schiffer) Ginny Webb works on her computer at home. As in many ranching families, Webb and her husband both hold other jobs: He works in construction, and she teaches college English. "You have to love ranching beyond the income or you won't make it,” Webb said. (Dawnee LeBeau) A cattle transport car serves as a climbing wall and fort for the Starr boys, who are free to explore and play on their family's ranch. Weather permitting, the boys spend their days outdoors. "It gives them a real independence, and they learn their limits real quick," said their mother, Jeri Starr, who is home full time with her young children while her husband works on the ranch. "Their imaginations amaze me.” (Emily Schiffer) “Neighbors help neighbors, especially branding in springtime," Jim Picotte said. "So you have a little community of neighbors who help each other out. That's what I grew up with and the way I see it should be. So if a neighbor needs help, you do what you can. We repay each other by helping who helps us.” (Sylvia Picotte) Sylvia Picotte, Parvannah Lee and Marge Clown share a laugh during a family gathering. (Dawnee LeBeau) South Dakota endures extreme winters, with temperatures reaching as low as minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit. Blizzards are common. The Picotte family lives 20 miles from town, and after four days without any sign of the municipal plow, family members took matters into their own hands and decided to shovel themselves out to the road. (Sylvia Picotte) Ginny and Aaron Webb were snowed in with their children for several weeks after back-to-back blizzards. “The only time living in such a remote, rural location tries my patience is when we're snowed in for weeks on end,” Ginny Webb said. “Being stuck with three kids in a small house with sub-zero temps and impenetrable snow outside is not easy. Sometimes I feel like moving to a bigger town, but my husband always reminds me that I'll feel completely different when I'm on horseback in the middle of the prairie in summer. In the end, this lifestyle is worth it if you can hack it.” (Emily Schiffer) In addition to the snow in any given storm, it's the wind, ice and extremely low temperatures that accompany the blizzard that create deadly conditions. Last year the Picotte family was snowed in for two weeks; even a regular tractor couldn't get through. Anjali Sky Knife and her sister Preslyn Dupris wanted to sled, but the harsh conditions sent them back indoors after only 10 minutes. (Dawnee LeBeau) "Every year our cows go through at least 100 tons of corn," Aaron Webb said. "We buy it from a local co-op because our ranch raises livestock, not crops.” Megan Webb, 8, climbs up and slides down her family’s corn mountain while her father feeds their cows. (Emily Schiffer)
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
More on In Sight:
[What it’s like living on a Greek island where people live longer than just about anywhere else]
[A photographer documents the heart-wrenching final moments of pet owners with their dying pets]
[Cold, dry and lonely in one of the most remote places on the Indian subcontinent]