Growing up in Germany, everything Felix von der Osten learned about Native Americans came from the books of 19th-century German writer Karl May.
May’s most beloved characters, a noble Apache leader named Winnetou and his cowboy blood brother Old Shatterhand, are said to be more popular today in Germany than the works of Thomas Mann, the 20th-century Nobel Prize-winning author of “Death in Venice.”
It wasn’t until von der Osten drove through South Dakota last year, bearing witness to modest homes and trailers on tribal land in the majestic Black Hills, that he realized how one-dimensional his perceptions were.
Intrigued, the 25-year-old photographer began researching Native American history. What he learned about its brutal conquest and fraught modern existence inspired him to return to Indian Country to capture the good, the bad and the ugly.
“I wanted to show a slice of life (through) the beauty and richness of the culture,” he said. “I didn’t want to do reportage. I wanted to do slow and thoughtful photographs, like historical documents.”
By chance he landed in Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home to 7,000 members of the Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) and the Assiniboine (Nakoda) tribes on 675,147 acres of land near the Canadian border. His American girlfriend had distant relatives living there who supported his idea and invited him to stay in their home.
His first stop upon arriving in October was to present his idea to the Fort Belknap tribal leadership. With their approval, he spent his first week walking around without his camera, introducing himself to tribal members and building relationships.
“The most important thing was I sat down, listened and learned,” he said. “I opened my ears and let them talk so they could teach me.”
Over time, they opened their homes to him and his camera. His choice of a Pentax 67 medium-format roll film camera forced him to carefully consider each shot, to “create images” in his head before taking them. It left him with a focused body of work.
He captured sacred tribal rituals and ceremonies along with the more mundane, familiar aspects of life: the tribal basketball team, a horse grazing in a field, a girl sitting on a bunk bed with a stuffed pony, the inside of a casino.
Through conversations with tribal members, he also learned of the harsh realities of life on the reservation, from the difficulties youths face in pursuing educational opportunities to the drug and alcohol addiction killing some members.
He put the camera away for some of his most memorable experiences — a sit in the sweat lodge, dinner with his host family — the ones that formed lasting relationships and earned him the nickname “the man who crossed the ocean.”
By revealing just a slice, he hopes to arouse curiosity in viewers and inspire them to learn more “to connect the dots.” It’s something he plans to continue doing by returning this summer to learn and experience more.
“The story’s not finished,” he said. “It’s a big sensitive topic and you have to be very careful, and I want to be careful.”