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John Willis

Indigenous women leading frontline action at the location where the Dakota Access Pipeline was being buried in the ground. When the police asked them to turn around and leave with their approximately 200 supporters, they agreed to do so only if the police would join them in a prayer for the water. Once the police agreed, prayed with the group, and drank some sacred water, the Water Protectors peacefully returned to camp.

The Arts

Honoring the water protectors

In a new book and a re-release, photographer John Willis assembles images of Oglala Lakota Sioux, Standing Rock resistance

More about Views from the Reservation and Mni Wiconi/Water Is Life can be found at:

BRATTLEBORO—This fall, southern Vermont photographer John Willis has two books in the works.

George F. Thompson Publishing, in association with the American Land Publishing Project, has just released a new edition of Willis’s celebrated book of photographs of the Oglala Lakota Sioux community at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Views from the Reservation.

In November, the same publisher will bring out a new book by Willis, Mni Wiconi/Water Is Life, about the sacrifice and spiritual dedication of thousands of people who supported the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s resistance to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on sacred grounds.

Willis has long demonstrated an interest in and commitment to the lives and concerns of Native Americans, particularly the Oglala Lakota Sioux community at Pine Ridge, S.D.

“Over 20 years ago, I was invited to meet an elder of the Lakota people and spent several months with him and his family,” says Willis. “I fell in love with them and their land.”

Willis was invited back and regularly visited the reservation over many years.

“These proud people live in one of the poorest counties in the United States, literally the third world within the borders of the richest country on earth,” Willis told The Commons in 2011.

“Among all the poverty and hardship, I am drawn by the humble nature and sincere kindness of these proud people. I find visiting them valuable and rejuvenating. For me, it is rejuvenating as a reminder of what is really important in life.”

Master of his craft

Born and raised in Stamford, Conn., John Willis received his M.F.A. in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1986, after which he joined Marlboro College as a professor of photography.

Willis is also the co-founder of the In-Sight Photography Project (, which offers courses to the youth of southern Vermont regardless of their ability to pay, and the Exposures Cross Cultural Youth Photography Program (, which brings youth together from a wide variety of backgrounds to share photography lessons and life stories.

Following the publication of Views from the Reservation, he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in Photography. He has also received numerous artist fellowships.

His photographs are in more than 60 collections, including the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Willis says that, from the beginning of his association with Pine Ridge, he was taking photographs of the people he met and the landscape he saw.

“I took a lot of pictures in 20 years,” says Willis. “These photos were never meant for publication. Their only purpose had been to give them to my family and the Lakota families I knew.”

As he writes in a news release, Willis “has long been aware of the exploitation that can occur when photographers enter communities as outsiders.”

So, in 1992, when he first visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, he assured elders of the Oglala Lakota nation that he wouldn’t exhibit any of his images. Over time, however, Willis earned the respect and trust of the community, and the elders urged him to show his work and create this book so that others might better understand Lakota land and life.

“The elder with whom I made initial contact finally passed on but,before he did, he met with me and asked what I planned to do with the pictures I took,” Willis said. “He wondered if there were any way I could use them to help his family and other Lakota people.”

‘A much-needed chainsaw’

With this blessing, Willis then sold some of his photographs to Vermont College’s literary journal. “From that sale, I got enough money to buy the elder’s family a much-needed chainsaw,” he says.

Then Willis began exhibiting the photographs in museums and galleries, where they were received with enthusiasm.

“I was approached to make a book of the photographs, but I would only agree if my publisher gave me another two years to include indigenous voices in the project,” Willis says.

In 2010, the Center for American Places published the first edition of Views from the Reservation, a monograph of his photographs and commentary developed in collaboration with people in the Oglala Lakota Sioux community at Pine Ridge.

Willis writes that he invited others to complement his striking photographs:

“Lakota elders and high school students from the Pine Ridge Reservation offer powerful poems; writer Kent Nerburn contributes an original essay; Emil Her Many Horses, a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, tells his story of growing up on the rez; Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, apologizes for the government’s abuse of native people; Oglala Lakota artist Dwayne Wilcox shares his provocative ledger drawings; and members of the Reddest family present their amazing photo collection.”

Willis admits that some people were disappointed by Views from the Reservation, because they had expected that the book to be just his photographs.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love that kind of monograph,” he says. ‘But I didn’t believe that this book was the place to go it alone. I am a guy from Vermont, with a relatively privileged background, at least certainly compared to many of the Lakota people, who live in extreme poverty, and must work hard to hold on to their identity, which society wants to erase through assimilation.

“Because of that, I felt (and still feel) it is very important to include other voices in both books about Native American people. In fact, there are more voices in Mni Wiconi/Water Is Life, in which around 50 people contribute to the project.”

Complementary volumes

Willis decided to create a new edition of Views from the Reservation for a simple enough reason: the original had sold out. In the interim, its publisher, the Center for American Places, had stopped operating. So simply putting out more copies of the first edition wasn’t possible.

However, the man who for 20 years ran the Center for American Places has recently started a new publishing house, George F. Thompson Publishing, that was eager to bring out not only the revised edition of Views but also Willis’s latest work.

Both books were designed with similar footprints so they would stand as complementary volumes.

Willis explains that “in the revised edition of Views from the Reservation I have taken out some photos from the earlier one and included some others. I have also updated some of the writing. In many ways, it feels like a new book to me.”

As in the earlier edition, Willis is donating all royalties from Views to KILI Radio, Voice of the Lakota Nation.

Willis’s newest book, Mni Wiconi/Water Is Life, includes his photographs taken in 2016 and 2017. The book’s subtitle, Honoring the Water Protectors at Standing Rock and Everywhere in the Ongoing Struggle for Indigenous Sovereignty, signals Willis’s political commitment with this volume.

As Willis writes, “This book raises awareness of Water Protectors for those who were not at Standing Rock and honoring those who were, through experiences at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, the indigenous-led resistance movement by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Energy Transfer Partners project to build the Dakota Access Pipeline on sacred land.

“The goal is to acknowledge and better understand the dedication of the Water Protectors, as they chose to be called, standing up for the health of Mni Wiconi and so many other related causes for the seven generations representing the past, present, and future health of all.”

As in his earlier book, Willis’s photographs are complemented by many Lakota voices and those of other allies through interviews, poetry, Lakota artwork, music through a downloadable CD, and historical ephemera. And essays by Terry Tempest Williams and Shaunna Oteka-McCovey provide new insights into age-old problems facing native people.

All of Willis’s royalties from the Mni Wiconi/Water Is Life project will go to legal-defense funds through the Water Protectors Legal Collective supporting the 814 cases in which individuals are facing charges.

“If, by a miracle, there is no longer a need to provide financial support for the defendants in those court cases, the remaining funds will be donated to support environmental causes on reservations,” Willis writes in the book’s dedication.

Willis is also donating all his personal copies of both volumes to various Sioux people as well as libraries. “Photography books can be pricey, and are not affordable for some people and institutions,” Willis says. “Usually an author is given around 50 copies a book, but I stipulated that I wanted 200 so that [I could] give my books where they are most needed.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #531 (Wednesday, October 9, 2019). This story appeared on page B1.

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