Arapaho Journeys:
Photographs and Stories from the Wind River Reservation

by Sara Wiles

University of Oklahoma Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-806-14158-9.
Reviewed by Khadijah A.
Posted on 01/12/2012

Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

Arapaho Journeys: Photographs and Stories from the Wind River Reservation is a treat for the eyes, the mind, and the heart. Author and photographer Sara Wiles has captured the spirit of the Arapaho people both with her stunning black and white photographs and her short essays accompanying each photo.

Many of us who are familiar with early photographs of Native Americans know that they were usually staged and taken out of context; rarely, unless the subject was well-known, was the name of the person in the portrait given. "Indian Maiden" or "Indian Brave with Child" would often be the only text accompanying a photo. Wiles changes all of this. She made a deliberate effort to give each photograph a story to go along with it. Often these are short biographies of the subject portrayed, in which Wiles simply tells their story; she does not inject anything from her own personality or experience with the person into it. At other times, the photos portray an event such as a giveaway, or, in a very powerful section, a series of pictures showing the return of some of the Arapaho to the site of Sand Creek Massacre, where over 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho were massacred by the U.S. Army.

The book is divided into three sections: photographs from 1975-1989, which tend to portray people Wiles knew well and worked with; photographs from 1990-1993, which contains photos mainly from Ethete, where she worked in a senior center; and, photographs from 1997-2005, in which she made a conscious effort to utilize a documentary style, with lots of photos from events and activities as well as portraits. Taken altogether, the photographs and essays portray a people and a way of life full of the richness of heritage and a strong sense of place and community. At the same time, they demonstrate how the Arapaho, like other Native American tribes all over America, are struggling to hold onto their language; indeed, to their rich past and the culture that has shaped and formed them.

In choosing the subjects for her photographs, Wiles made a conscious decision not to show any images involving alcohol. She does not, however, shy away from the reality of the devastation which alcohol has visited upon the Arapaho people, or the fact that they are subject to economic and social racism on numerous levels. The stories of the people tell us of this, but they also show clearly how they have striven to overcome these things, and to revive traditions that have been almost lost.

Arapaho Journeys is, simply put, beautiful. Sara Wiles takes you to the Wind River Reservation of the past and present. Several times throughout the book I found my heart lifted by the strength and character of the Arapaho people portrayed between its covers. I found myself looking into the eyes of elderly Arapaho women and seeing the girls that they once were looking back at me, and experiencing a sense of loss, and yet of hope for these amazing people. In the sections covering different events I could almost feel the warmth of community and the strength of the ties that bind them together. In the section entitled "Martin Luther King Day Walk" I was struck by the sign in one of the photos, "Diversity is our Strength." Diversity, yes, but the theme which repeated itself throughout the book, and which I believe showed the true strength of the Arapaho people, is their shared language, history and culture.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Sara Wiles is an independent photographer, writer, and scholar who holds a Masters Degree in Anthropology from Indiana University. She has worked on the Wind River Reservation since 1973 as student of anthropology, a social worker, a consultant for language and cultural projects, and a photographer. She was adopted as a daughter by traditional Arapaho elder Frances C'hair and was given an Arapaho name. Her photographs have been exhibited nationally. She lives in Lander, Wyoming, with her husband, Steve. Visit her website.

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