Ken's Horse Penny
Penny, Ken's horse.

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Cause & Effect Mental Contagion
Art • Environment • Interview

Ken Marchionno Los Angeles, CA
Interviewed by Dean Pajevic | Web site

From Ken's web site: "Every year on December 15th people gather at Sitting Bull Camp, near Bullhead, South Dakota, to ride horseback nearly three hundred miles to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. The ride is called the Oomaka Tokatakiya (Future Generations) Ride and the majority of the riders come from three Lakota (Sioux) reservations: Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and Pine Ridge. Others come from as far as Germany and the Czech Republic. In two weeks they travel across rivers and farms, cross a major interstate, and arrive at Wounded Knee on the anniversary of the massacre that took more than 300 lives in 1890."
"These photographs chronicle the 2004 and 2005 rides from start to finish. The work focuses as much on the ride, its landscape and hardship, as it does the individuals involved. Taken from both horseback and support vehicles, the images offer a unique perspective and an intimate view." Learn More

Ken M

DP: The people ride all day, in sun and snow, dawn to dusk. What is it like to be outside on the horses, on the trail, this new/old path, across 20th century America's highways and roads?

KM: It was beautiful and invigorating, and at the same time disheartening. Coming from Los Angeles, and having taken only a few riding lessons in corrals on stable raised horses, there was a feeling of freedom/liberation when I first got on the ride. But the realities of the trail, the fences, the gravel roads, the farmhouses and towns that pepper the land along the way, forced me to face the fact that this land is "owned" and the ride is anything but free. Most of the ride is on Indian land, but there are a couple of days when we ride between the Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge reservations that we are on state land. And on those days, you are more aware of the lack of freedom; you are aware of the fact that you are traveling across occupied territory. On Indian land we are welcome, sometimes people even come to see us off, and we sleep in gyms and community centers. But off the reservation, locals view the riders with suspicion, and the distrust goes both ways. In many ways the 21st century is no more progressive than the 19th.

Ken M

DP: It seems that photographing native Americans could be filled with potential artistic minefields: stereotyping, idealizing, simplifying, etc. Yet your photos are filled with beautiful, raw and real moments. These are regular people staking their place in the present world and re-owning history. Can you talk about what drove your process as you explored this journey?

KM: I think it's easy to fall into some of those traps if you start a project with a specific story in mind. You also have to keep in mind that I'm not the kind of photographer that comes in to "get the story" and leaves. I have no deadline, no editor looking for recognizable images that will help sell magazines. I spend as much time in South Dakota as I can afford, and the people I photograph are my friends.

If I can share a story: A friend of mine was in a sweat lodge with a man from out of town who was not of Indian blood. When the time came for everyone to speak, this man said "I come here to escape reality."

Ken M

DP: You mention "While the ride is in many ways in homage to Sitting Bull, Big Foot, and those who lost their lives at Wounded Knee, this ride is also meant to foster leadership qualities in the youth." Has it done so? How?

KM: I've only been on the ride for two years, so I have no personal knowledge of teens that have gone on to become great leaders. What I know is that this ride allows kids to build friendships across wide ranging–even international–communities. And it's hard to ride a horse for eight hours in below freezing weather, and sleep in a field, or on the floor of a gym.

In the end the ride produces a sense of accomplishment, of purpose and comradery; it builds a physical knowledge and connection with history; and for many it puts spirituality into practice. And those are experiences that help build leadership qualities.

Ken M

DP: From your images there are several generations of people contributing to the ride: children, teens, adults and older folks. I imagine this deepened the experience for all involved. How do you think this mixing of generations shaped the experience?

KM: It's integral to the experience. The ride is a modern experience of a traveling community. We are, for two weeks, nomadic, in that we bring shelter, what food we can, and get what we can along the way. And the whole family is there, babies to grand mothers. It may not be nearly as tough as it was for Big Foot and his people in 1890, but it is an experience of being an extended family facing hardships along the trail.

DP: Your images are so intertwined in the action, do you feel like part of the event? An outsider? A comrade? A witness? What does it feel like?

KM: Because of the nature of what I do, there is always the discussion of objectivity–the report from a witness to history is expected to be distant. And to some degree it has to be so, since the act of looking takes you outside the action. I ride and feed my horse. I drive, and trailer horses along the route. And I also have a camera and I'm from Los Angeles. But I'm like everyone else, I bring to the table the skills I have to offer.

Ken M

DP: This idea of re-owning your past, of finding present day meaning and action through it, seems a powerful tonic against forgetfulness. Against a kind of mental or spiritual genocide. Do you think we as a nation could do something similar? What?

KM: I think to truly own a history you have to embody it. The ride is very much about a physicality of knowledge, something Western culture doesn't appreciate or often acknowledge. It's the Cartesian/Augustinian thing. And until there is a cultural paradigm shift, I suspect a spiritual vacuum will always exist.

DP: What really, for you, is at stake in these images?

KM: It's a whole variety of things. But at the base, it's about doing something meaningful. Just like anyone, I need to feel needed. I have a job that many others can do. Maybe I'm good at it, maybe I bring something special to it, but this is something I can do that no one else can do. And this work shows something important. I'm contributing something to the world, not just taking up space. Hopefully this can bring some richness into people's lives, and perhaps it will help them understand something about the world.

Ken M

DP: If there was a person, or a group of people in the world whom you think will never see your art, but whom you think need to; who would that be? And why?

KM: I guess it would have to be mainstream America. I don't mean they won't look at the work; I hope everyone will have that opportunity. But will they really see it? At its depth this ride is about power, and the story is timeless. Every day we see those with great material power overrun those less endowed; it's all over CNN. But we also see that material power rarely breaks spirit. And in the end, material has little real power.

Ken M

©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers