By Vicki Brown
A lifelong interest in Native Americans and an online article from 2006 about conditions on a South Dakota reservation prompted a Southwest Baptist University staff member about four years ago to travel to the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Reservation to witness the plight of members of the Sioux Nation for himself.
An avid photographer, Kurt Caddy took along his camera. “I had a burst of creativity that I hadn’t had in a long time,” said the director of university ministries at the Southern Baptist school in Bolivar, Mo.
Images of beauty alongside misery touched Caddy in ways he knew few people back home would understand. “When I came back, no one knew what I was talking about,” Caddy said. “I felt overwhelmed that people didn’t know about their plight.”
Caddy put together a display of Native American art, including his photographs from the trip. Then he heard a presentation by David Johnson from Silent Images, a nonprofit service that recruits professional photographers to assist charities and churches with “advocacy photography” to tell the stories of the voiceless or oppressed.
“Wow, this is what needs to happen for the Lakota,” Caddy thought.
Johnson suggested Caddy put together a photo team to tell the Lakota story. In the meantime, Caddy continued to head to South Dakota, taking student teams and his family with him on most of the nine trips he has made.
Last fall, he recruited a team of 13 students and two others, including Todd Walker, an SBU alum who had become a professional photographer, as a photo team. They met every week for 13 weeks beginning in January to learn about the Lakota and to plan the project.
The photo team spent May 20-29 on the Cheyenne River Reservation, with their base at Cherry Creek. Most mission groups do not have the opportunity to stay on the Lakota reservations, instead sleeping elsewhere and returning for ministry each day.
Caddy connected with and is now partnering with Anthony Hanson, a Lakota and founder of New Hope Native American Mission in Cherry Creek.
Before the team could begin photographing the people and their daily life, members had to build trust with the community. For about five days, team members did service projects, helping set up a community garden and presenting a seminar on growing and preserving produce.
They built a pavilion next to the cemetery as a place for the community to serve funeral meals. And they built 25 crosses for the cemetery to help replace those lost when a planned burn got out of control.
Then they took pictures — lots of them, Caddy said. About 5,000 that they are culling and editing will become the basis of two phases for getting the Lakotas’ story out.
They have targeted November for the release of Phase I, a display of photos that Caddy hopes to be able to share not only at Southwest Baptist, but also on other college campuses and in local churches.
Phase II will be producing and publishing a coffee-table book of photos, with the proceeds of book sales to benefit the Lakota.
Caddy said getting the story told is important for a couple of reasons. First, he said, in some ways Christians are still unraveling damage unintentionally done by earlier believers.
“The Lakota have had 500 years of missionary exposure. They have had access to the gospel and have been exposed to the gospel but still less than 2 percent are Christian,” Caddy explained. “Right here in our own midst we have an unreached people group.”
Caddy said earlier efforts to evangelize Native Americans included “some really bad missionary practice.” He pointed out that the Lakota were forced to assimilate into European culture in many ways. They were forced to send their children to boarding schools and told not to speak their “heart” language.
The Lakota were among the tribes most able to sustain themselves because they lived off the land. As Europeans took over prime lands and the Lakota were forced onto small reservations, the people became less able to take care of their own needs. “Now they are some of the most dependent people,” Caddy said.
Caddy said he hopes to work with Hanson and New Hope’s board to “do more to help them be sustainable,” he said. The Lakota do “amazing” beadwork, for example, but they have no Internet access to market their products.
Second, Caddy believes all people, including the Lakota, need to hear the gospel. He always takes the teams he leads to Wounded Knee — site of the last major U.S. military strike to subdue Native Americans on Dec. 29, 1890, and called the Wounded Knee Massacre — because he believes it is a “spiritual stronghold.”
Caddy said there is “an openness” in Cherry Creek that he would like to see become a church-planting movement with the Lakota trained to reach their own people with the gospel message.
Caddy describes the area as “a great place to go to have your heart broken” and for students to think about God’s purpose for them. When students wonder why they have “had it so good” compared to the Native Americans, Caddy tells them they are asking the wrong question.
“The question is: ‘What are you going to do with your life, your possessions, your degree?’” he said.