Rescuing a Sense of Community in a Native American Tribe

Italian photographers Michela Benaglia and Emanuela Colombo document how a Native American community in North Dakota finds itself coming together while fighting to protect their threatened land.

© Michela Benaglia and Emanuela Colombo, from the series, VII Generation Prophecy

The VII Generation Prophecy of North Dakota says that after seven generations of close contact with white people, the Indians will see trees die, animals deform and a big monster in the shape of a black snake appear through the earth and transform the rivers into tides of fire. As a result, the local Indians will rise-up together, as one tribe. The Indians will condemn the white oppressors and demand to be heard and protect its land as the Great Spirits teaches.

In 2017, Italian photographers Michela Benaglia and Emanuela Colombo embarked on a journey documenting the contemporary challenges facing indigenous communities in North and South Dakota, as their livelihoods and culture come under threat from the construction of a 3.8 billion dollar oil pipeline.

How did you first learn about the VII Generation Prophecy as stated by the American natives?

We learned about the VII Generation Prophecy when we were in North Dakota working with native American communities who live next to the area where the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) passes the reservoir border. We were here documenting what was happening behind the scenes and how the DAPL project was affecting people’s everyday lives. On the side, it seemed that most people were aware about the NODAPL campaign - grassroots movements in reaction to the approved construction of Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access Pipeline – which had been covered widely by different media across the world.

In our process of collecting data and interviewing locals, we met the chairman of the Standing Rock Reservation, Mr. Archambault II, who allowed us to better understand the situation. The chairman was the first person who told us about the Prophecy. We realised the issues were indeed deep and complex for the locals, as well as threatening to their culture, which has ancient roots that still pervade their lives and behaviours, even if some are almost lost.

© Michela Benaglia and Emanuela Colombo, from the series, VII Generation Prophecy

Even though the current panorama appears to be challenging for native Americans, what do you think still keeps them together in a modern community?

The reality that we have seen suggests that they in fact are not together as a tribe anymore... They have been overwhelmed by continuous abuse from the government until their traditions have almost completely disappeared. Despite this, some still try to preserve the sense of community, and the NODAPL movement has helped to make the community feel united again. However, the majority don’t care about either: the pipeline nor the community itself... They are lost in alcoholism, drug addiction, and deep poverty.

While looking at your project, I found that the images reveal a feeling of loss and melancholia. What do you think about this? Was this a conscious act?

All the work is influenced by a sense of loss, as this is how the native communities are now, not only in North Dakota but all over the United States. The Indian Reserves seem to be a tourist attraction with some nice landscapes and many casinos. Yet if you go to the villages you face a really bad situation for people who don’t have any opportunities there.

At present, in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, the majority of the population live below the poverty line, the unemployment rate is at 63%, only one child in five completes their studies, and the abuse of alcohol and drugs is very widespread. The suicide rate is higher than in any other American community and depression has become chronic with one Indian woman in three claiming to have been raped throughout her life. The few employed individuals work for the government or in the casinos and those who can leave at the earliest opportunity looking to build a new life.

© Michela Benaglia and Emanuela Colombo, from the series, VII Generation Prophecy

It appears in your series that certain traditions seem to remain within their culture. Could you name a few and how are these visible in your work?

Unfortunately, very few traditions remain in their everyday life: history tells us that the white man’s insolence has consciously erased almost all of their origins. For example, the photographic portraits of their ancestors are the old mugshots that the white man had made to take a census of the population in order to keep them under strict control.

In some houses, there are still some traditional objects, like the buffalo bone with a blade on the top, traditionally used for treating the elks’ skin, or the man's feather necklace for sacred dance. But mostly the traditions are reduced to casino souvenirs.

As outsiders to this native community, how do you find your work can contribute towards improving their social issues?

It is very rare that a picture has the power to change things, but as photographers, our aim is to report the reality in the most clear and honest way we can in order to inform people and make them aware of a specific situation. We report things as they are, being respectful of our subjects. Most likely we won’t have a direct impact on their social issues, but the more we can spread the story, the more we have some chance in doing something good, also for them.

© Michela Benaglia and Emanuela Colombo, from the series, VII Generation Prophecy

You are both based in Italy yet you have delivered two collaborative personal projects - No Man's Land and VII Generation Prophecy - both based in the United States. What motivates you to work in the country?

The rights for land in the United States is a very controversial and interesting issue, and it is the base of both projects you mention. Both Cowboys and Indians, the “endless enemies”, are fighting for the rights on their land. They live in the same country that is supposed to be the homeland of democracy and freedom, but they are facing huge abuses of their rights. We thought that these were stories that needed to be told.

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Michela Benaglia and Emanuela Colombo are Italian documentary photographers both based in Milan, Italy. They met in 2014 at the LUZ Academy Master and have since collaborated on numerous projects. Follow Michela and Emanuela on Instagram.

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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