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photo-eye Book Reviews: Views from the Reservation

Views from the Reservation, Photographs by John Willis. 
Published by Center for American Places, 2010.
Views from the Reservation

Reviewed by Ellen Rennard
John Willis Views from the Reservation
Center for American Places, 2010. Hardbound. 184 pp., Illustrated throughout, 11-1/4x10."

There are several good reasons to own Views from the Reservation. First, royalties from the book will be donated to KILI radio, "the voice of the Lakota Nation." Second, John Willis' black and white photographs are compelling, especially in that, when taken as a whole, they give us some sense of present-day life on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a place where sixty-nine percent of the children live in poverty. Wild turnips, buffalo, a sweat lodge, horses, the mass gravesite at Wounded Knee - Willis turns his lens toward details that convey a reasonable sense of Lakota life. In "Veterans' Honor Guard," and the "Veteran's Protest to the Treatment of Muslims after 9/11/2001," we see present-day manifestations of the warriors who once counted coup on the Plains. And photographs like the one of Victoria Chipps on her 90th birthday and "Vern Sitting Bear and His Niece's Pet Wolf" are powerful images in and of themselves.

The best section of the book, other than Willis' photographs, features the ledger drawings of Dwayne Wilcox. His "Wow Real Blooded White People" might have made a fitting opening to the book; with typical humor it shows three Native Americans photographing two Anglos.

Views from the Reservation, by John Willis. Published by Center for American Places, 2010.

Otherwise, the book contains a mishmash of poems, prayers, essays, historical photographs, and even a CD. Willis explains that this "creative compilation" is for his Lakota friends as a gift for all he has received from them. Yet he plainly also intends this book for the rest of us, and at times these two audiences sit far apart. For example, poems written by Lakota children undoubtedly will be appreciated more by the former than the latter.

In spite of Willis' attempt to include multiple (and Native American) voices, and although Willis' photographs reflect his obviously genuine and lasting friendships with Lakota people, we are still, for the most part, looking at the views of outsiders. To his credit, Willis acknowledges that fact. Still, I wanted to know more about why he was inexorably drawn to Lost Dog Creek - more about what lost part of himself and his past he was searching for.

Views from the Reservation, by John Willis. Published by Center for American Places, 2010.

Views from the Reservation, by John Willis. Published by Center for American Places, 2010.

 The book also includes an essay by Kent Nerburn. I admit that I don't understand why it is that most photography book publishers feel compelled to include essays by "experts." (And no, I do not think Nerburn's other writing qualifies him as an authority on the Sioux.) Not only is Nerburn a non-Indian, but also, the quality of his writing is uneven (and that's a charitable adjective); at its worst it is simply hokey and pretentious. If you buy this book, skip the essay. There is a short piece by Emil Her Many Horses that, thankfully, sheds a sliver of light on reservation life. Read that instead.

The main problem, besides the weakness of much of the text, is that even the good parts don't work together. Except for some of Willis' photographs, the sequencing seems arbitrary. However, in the end, I can forgive this book its considerable flaws, skip the text that is not worth reading, forget about how it all fits together, and just look at the excellent photographs, listen to a few drumbeats on the CD, and imagine myself on the Rez.—Ellen Rennard

Ellen Rennard is a writer, photographer, and teacher of writing and literature at Groton School in Groton, MA. She graduated from Princeton, where she wrote her thesis on images of Native Americans; she also holds an MA in English from Middlebury. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Fraction Magazine and Photovision; her photographs have appeared in numerous publications, including Black and White and Orion. Images from Rennard’s book project on The Downs at Albuquerque were nominated for a New York Photo Festival Book Award in 2009 and won first place in the 2010 Px3 People’s Choice Awards for Book Proposal and Documentary Photography.