Dong-Seon Chang | Culture Critic |
2011. 01.


A Photo Essay about Native Americans by a Korean Artist

What do we know about American culture? To understand a culture we must know its history, and any study of American history must begin with the story of Native Americans. Yet, very few people know much about the earliest people who lived in America. And what do we know about the current life and culture of these indigenous people, also known as American Indians?

A photographer from Korea made an unusual journey to experience Native American culture from the inside. Originally, he had gone to the United States to document the life stories of several generations of immigrants who had come to make their new homes there. Instead, he became more interested in the lives of the people who lived in America before them, not the newcomers. The sorrowful journey of Native Americans and their long struggle to survive through the years and redefine their identities drew his attention and compassion. THE CIRCLE NEVER ENDSis the honest story told by a Korean photo-journalist based on his personal experiences after visiting the cold and isolated reservations in northwest United States, where most of the last Native Americans live today. This book is about what he saw and the feelings that marked his experiences.

1. The Real Life of Native Americans: A Glimpse

There are many clichés and stereotypes about Native Americans, largely originating from the narrow and misguided way they were portrayed in Western cowboy movies. But who are they, really? What defines their traditional culture today, and how is their life, particularly life on the reservation?

Because Native Americans worship nature and all living beings, they value harmony with the elements of nature in their surroundings. But after Christopher Columbus’ arrival on these shores in 1492, European conquerors brought prolonged warfare and devastating diseases with them. They also brought destructive practices such as alcoholism, individualism and exploitation, all of which worked to destroy the indigenous people’s world, causing broken communities, mass migrations from their original lands, and untold deaths. Subsequently, Western pioneers and settlers who came after them regarded Native Americans as primitive, aggressive and superstitious.

This book is an attempt to tell the real story of the life and culture of Native Americans today, contradicting these biases and clichés, and tapping into their original spirit of honor, compassion, and harmony with nature, which are still at the core of their beliefs today.

2. Omaka Tokatakiya: Future Generation Ride

Every year in December people come together in South Dakota to ride on horseback across the prairies. This ride is called Omaka Tokatakiya (Future Generation Ride) and takes them about 15 days to go 500 kilometers to reach the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. This infamous massacre by the 7th US Cavalry in 1890 took more than 300 lives. Together with the Sundance Festival in the summer, the Future Generation ride is one of the most meaningful events for Native Americans to commemorate Chief Big Foot who was killed in this massacre. This long and painful ride – enduring freezing temperatures and staying outdoors at night with little sleep – gives the young riders an important opportunity to find their identities as Native Americans who live on lands that have been taken from them and occupied by others for generations.

The author tells about his remarkable and unforgettable journey on this Future Generation Ride.

3. Questioning the Intrusion of Western Civilization

This book is not only about Native Americans but draws attention to many details about more recent American history and society. Isn’t it amazing that the same people who fought for independence and freedom on the one side, without any hesitation, suppressed and tortured people on the other side? America has an unfortunate history of plundering and repression of others in order to establish its own sense of self-esteem and pride.

The author tells us stories from the hidden side of America, in a sometimes provocative yet always insightful manner.

4. Traditional Values in the Life of Native Americans

What kinds of values can we pursue in a civilized society that is ruled by modern technology? The author suggests some alternatives by showing us the numerous ecological elements in the traditional life of Native Americans. He tells us why in a globalized and modern world it is ever more important to keep traditional wisdoms alive, so that we may live together in harmony with nature instead of seeking to conquer and exploit it. By telling us these stories, he articulates a message of hope and peaceful coexistence.

THE CIRCLE NEVER ENDS received rave reviews from many Korean newspapers and was among the finalists for the Baeksang Publishing Award in the category of “Best Book of 2007” which is regarded as one of the most valuable publishing awards in Korea.

The author-photographer, Sung Hyun Sohn studied photography at Chung-ang University in Seoul, Korea and received his Masters in Visual Arts at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA. He is a photographer, writer and video/media artist, and has participated in more than 20 exhibitions in Korea and the USA. He is a member of the Nutopia Forum in New York, a photography group specializing in portraits.

Dong-Seon Chang, Culture Critic

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