Student project benefits reservation

By Alexandra Kukulka

What started as a class assignment for one Columbia student became the genesis of a project to benefit others.

Daniel Wessell, a junior photography major, created the Lakota Spirit Project to provide programs  to stimulate economic growth and foster a higher standard of living for the Oglala Sioux tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which he said is one of the poorest reservations in the country.

Wessell said he wants the project to become a nonprofit so it can reach a larger number of donors. He also plans to help those on the reservation establish home businesses, such as an auto shop.

“[The Lakota Spirit Project] is going to try to get [Native Americans] free small business consultations so they can turn some of their small businesses, [which] they run out of their homes, into real businesses,” Wessell said. “[Then] they can employ themselves, they can make [better] wages and they can hire other people.”

Wessell said he came up with the idea for the project after completing an independent study and taking a Human Rights course at Columbia that required him to take photos of a region of the country that has been neglected. In November 2011, when he came back from his last photography trip, his mother encouraged him to continue to help the tribe.

Wessell visited the reservation five more times during the spring semester before starting his first donation drive.

Working with Kara Janachione, a senior art & design major who helps with branding the project, and Brandon Novak, a volunteer and former Illinois State University student, Wessell spent about two months collecting canned food, clothes and household products in his hometown of Des Plaines, Ill. He rented a van and delivered the items to the tribe, which he said benefited 20 homes on the reservation.

Wessell said he wants to match each donation drive to the needs of those living on the reservation. His next drive on Dec. 1 will focus on personal hygiene products, he said.

Janachione said she got involved in the project after meeting Wessell during her freshman year and looking at his photos of the reservation. She said she believes the project shows that people care about the reservation, and she hopes it will continue to grow.

“We want to create a grocery store, because it is a food desert out there,” Janachione said. “The only way people can get food is from gas stations, and it’s really expensive.”

Wessell said he wants to expand his project to include more than just donated products. He said he hopes Novak’s idea to install reflectors along the road or give tribe members reflective vests comes to fruition.

“Pedestrian fatalities are a huge problem [on the reservation],” Novak said. “People are killed every day just by walking down the street in the middle of the night, so we’re trying to think of what would be a cheap but effective way to help people protect themselves while they are walking.”

According to Joseph Whiting, an elder of the Oglala Sioux tribe, approximately 85 percent of people on the reservation are unemployed and the average annual household income of tribe members is $12,000. Whiting said efforts like Wessell’s can improve the reservation, and hopes the project will help the tribe’s young people develop businesses. However, the locals on the reservation have mixed opinions.

“Most of [the reservation] thinks [Wessell’s project] is real good,” Whiting said. “There are a few people who would rather have some local person try to [help the reservation].”

Frank Waln, a junior audio arts & acoustics major who is from the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota, and Samsoche Sampson, a junior fine arts major who is from the Seneca tribe in upstate New York, perform traditional Native American music and dance together as part of a “ShopColumbia Presents” series, as reported by The Chronicle March 12. Both commend Wessell’s project, but believe Native Americans ought to tell their own stories.

“It is easy to go to a reservation and take beautiful pictures of ugly things,” Waln said. “The difficult thing is trying to trust the people and collaborate with them in a way where they can tell their own story.”

According to Wessell, the Lakota Spirit Project helps only those who want help. However, he said he wants to expand the project to have a longer-lasting effect on the tribe.

“We don’t want to be doing [donation drives] forever, where we are going out there and helping them just based off of what we think they need,” Wessell said. “But if people are telling us … that they could use help, then we respond.”