Ranching families on Cheyenne River Reservation face a choice: Staying in an industry they can’t keep up with or leaving the only life they’ve known

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.)

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.

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