ROBERT OSBORN: Street People & Warriors
Portraits of the Homeless on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation
"I have been photographIng for a very long time. Over the years I have been blessed with more than my share of projects in which my heart became involved.
It’s happening again.
Fort Peck Indian Reservation lies in Montana’s far northeast corner, well out onto the Northern Plains.
Poplar is one of six towns on the reservation. Its population is 850 and decreasing each year. The people here are predominately Sioux. This is the poorest town I’ve ever been in. Tourists do not stop here. There is endemic alcoholism, high unemploy- ment, too many burned-out houses, too many meth dealers, too much crime, too much poverty, and bone-deep despair. People in Poplar believe a dark cloud hangs over their town.
Tribal elders I’ve spoken to claim Poplar’s deteri- oration began when the ban on alcohol was lifted on the reservation in the 1950s. Poplar has become a third world zone, right here in Montana. This should not be, but it is.
At the very bottom of Poplar’s social order are the Indian homeless. They are mostly ignored by their own people and virtually unknown to the rest of Montana. They sleep in sheds and abandoned buildings, or in a trash dumpster or rolled up in a discarded rug when nothing else is available. Some are addicted to meth; most are alcoholics.
These are the people I photograph. I am honored they allow me to do so. They make images that refuse to be ignored.
Two years ago, when I was photograph-
ing Montana Indians in a historical-traditional context, I met Don Rattling Thunder La Roque, an Assiniboine-Sioux. We did three photo sessions
of him in Native regalia, made some really strong photographs, and became close friends. Don was
raised in Poplar. He is fast becoming a latter-day warrior for his people, the homeless included.
In August of 2017, Don introduced me to Joleen La Roche, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Joleen is a tough woman with a big heart. She works with the homeless in Poplar.
While we were talking, Joleen asked what I thought of photographing the street people of Poplar. This was a stunning moment for me. Immediately
I could see the extraordinary potential of the idea: the baroque imagery, the moving body of work, an art photography book that would almost certainly follow. In a flash I saw all of this. But what I didn’t see was how much my heart would become involved.
Since that conversation I’ve made five trips to Poplar and the neighboring reservation town of Wolf Point, and I intend to make several more over the next year or two. In addition to photo gear, my van is usually loaded with bags of clothing donated by people who have seen these pictures in my gallery.
This has become an ongoing project that Joleen, Don, and I care deeply about and contribute to, each in our own way. Profits from the sale of these photographs and the eventual book will go toward meals, clothing, and facilities for the Fort Peck homeless.
When I began this article on New Year’s Day, the temperature in Poplar was 30 degrees below zero. Keep this in mind as you consider these photographs.
In mid-January Don La Roque called to tell me that Moosie, whose photograph is included here, had just been found frozen nearly to death in a dumpster in Poplar, and that a homeless man we do not know had been found frozen behind a market in Wolf Point. Moosie survived (barely), the other man did not." - Robert Osborn
An exhibition of these and other large-format photographs by Robert Osborn will be on display at Sundog Fine Art in Bozeman during June 2018. Reception June 9 at 5:30 p.m. More at sundogfineart.com.