A Look Into Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana

Through a combination of portraits and landscapes, Felix von der Osten reflects upon how Native American tribes are trying to maintain their centuries-old culture.

© Felix von der Osten, from the series, The Buffalo that could not Dream

The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana is home to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Native American tribes, and it was there that German photographer, Felix von der Osten began The Buffalo that could not Dream, a series which explores the lives of the people who live at Fort Belknap and their tribal culture. In the past, the tribes were enemies, forced to live together after the American Government passed the Appropriations Act of 1851 (the Act led to the creation of reservations for Native Americans).

Life remains hard for these people, says von der Osten. There are problems with drug and alcohol abuse, and the repercussions of gang culture ripple through the reservation. But, rather than approaching the project as a reportage photographer might - by going straight in and covering the most newsworthy stories - von der Osten favoured a slower, more contemplative approach.

© Felix von der Osten, from the series, The Buffalo that could not Dream

He lived at Fort Belknap for a month towards the end of 2014, gradually winning the trust of the residents, who he says opened up and welcomed him into their community. His aim was “to show the beauty and richness of the Native American culture, [giving it] the dignity and respect it deserves… Shining a light on the faces, the lives and the roots of this culture might help to better understand these people” he says.

Through a combination of posed portraits, landscape images, and still life studies, von der Osten captures the essence of daily life, alluding to the difficulties people face without directly focusing on them. He returned to Fort Belknap in the summer of 2016 for a little over a month, and says his time there not only helped to progress the project but also allowed him to grow as a photographer. “For a lot of people, I wasn’t ‘the photographer’ anymore; I was just the guy who was there. I was included in everything and it was very family-like.”

© Felix von der Osten, from the series, The Buffalo that could not Dream

He didn’t have a car to travel the vast distances across the reservation, but it turned out to be an opportunity, he says, as relying on others for lifts meant he got to know new people and places. “I made a lot more portraits this time, because I met more people… Almost everyone knew me, and I was accepted; I could go everywhere.”

Von der Osten carefully edited the images from his most recent trip - a time-consuming but necessary process - combining them with his previous shots. “On my previous trip I was more about showing the beauty [of the place], but this time the images are a bit more rough in the sense that you can see rubbish lying around, for example.” The suggestion that all is not well at Fort Belknap is more evident in the images now, he adds, giving an example of a portrait of a little boy wearing a balaclava and holding a baseball bat, which is playful yet “dark”.

“I got a lot deeper this time… My confidence grew and I took chances – knocking on people’s doors for example, which I’d never have done before. I really want to go back again.”

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Felix von der Osten is a documentary photographer from Germany. To learn more about the work of von der Osten, visit his PHmuseum profile.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.

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