It’s been a long time.
I hestitate to even pretend to know where to begin with this post. This summer has been quite the experience.
In short, myself and three friends raised money through Kickstarter to live and work in Valentine, Neb., on a documentary project about the Sandhills of Nebraska, the only part of the state that isn’t flat.
The rolling dunes are majestically beautiful and you’re guaranteed to have sand in your shoes at the end of a good day’s work. We wanted to give a small town community a more in-depth and committed documentation of its lifestyle and current situation than it typically gets. To do that we knew we needed to live in a small town for a summer.
We chose Valentine because it has all of the elements of a small town - but it does have more than those typical elements. It is the Niobrara town. 30,000 tourists come through Valentine to float the river in the summertime. It’s about 1/3 of the economy, and almost all tourism happens in June/July/August. The heavy ranching lifestyles here contribute to another 1/3 of the economy. This is cattle country, without a doubt. You’ve probably heard there are more cows than people in Nebraska. That’s true here, too. Lastly, the Rosebud Indian Reservation sits just across the Nebraska-South Dakota border, with its southern edge just nine miles north of Valentine on Highway 83. Shopping in Valentine from reservation residents fills in that last 1/3 of the economy, generally speaking.
We put our work on our website, http://flyovermevalentine.com.
Now that our time is coming to a close, we’ll get to work on editing a short documentary together, and readying a few online interactive zines to be published in the coming months. So, even though we’ve been here working for three months, the project is far from over.
I wanted to take this time to update you on what exactly we’ve gotten ourselves into up here.
I think we’ve spent much more time covering community events than we imagined we would. It’s been a great way to meet people, and as the summer has gone on, it’s gotten to the point where we know at least someone almost everywhere we show up. It’s a town of 3,000 so that should be expected. I do know there are still people we never met, though…
Like the guy above, Heath Zullner. He lost two of his front teeth bullriding in ‘05. “After that, I started wearing a helmet,” he said. He was cool with me after another bull rider asked to make sure my “documentary project” wasn’t backed by PETA.
And then there’s the small (when I say small out here, I really mean small) community of Brownlee, which is about 45 miles south of Valentine. Its population sign reads “20 (or so).” Trust me, it’s less than 20.
There, we got to see so many ranchers we’d met over the summer come together for a Sunday evening church service by pastor John Lewis, below, who travels from North Platte to Brownlee every Sunday for the mass. “If I didn’t go (to Brownlee) they wouldn’t have a church,” he said. Imagine that.
Above, the Valentine High School alumni reunion weekend. Because classes are so small, every year, the fifth-year reunion (think: those that graduated in ‘85, ‘90, ‘95, 2000, 2005, etc.) classes come together and do a group reunion. Coming from a large high school, it was new for me to hear how these peoples’ high school experiences have stuck with them in such a bonding way.
And below, nightlife among young people in Valentine. So many of the young people seemed to talk down on Valentine, or ask why we would come *here* to spend our summer, as if it were a bad choice. You have to understand where they’re coming from, but at the same time, they seemed to be having so much fun out drinking, as young people everywhere do, that I didn’t think they actually meant what they were saying wholeheartedly about their hometown.
The Fourth of July demolition derby was a large contrast from what you’ll see later in this post about the Independence Day festivities in Sicangu Village on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Of course, cattle brandings…
And I spent some time following Mormon missionaries who’ve knocked on 90 percent of the doors in Valentine.
And the Mill Pond was always a reliably dirty place to cool off.
The Culpepper & Merriweather Circus’ visit to town was one of my favorite community events this summer. They welcomed me in right away, and laughed at me as I ran around outside in a hailstorm with a plastic bag over my camera and a snowcone tray held above my head to ward off the falling ice.
We were also welcomed into the Ride Across Rosebud camp, put on by two leaders in the Mission community who run the only private nonprofit on the entire reservation. Many nonprofits subsidize into the Tribe because it gives them access to the huge amounts of Federal money that’s given to organizations on the reservation every year.
We met youth there who are up against a lot, and there’s no concrete proof that any overall, positive change will come anytime soon. What Shane and Noella are doing with this nonprofit is a very good start, though.
But to contrast that, just a short drive away every weekend are the tourists who come to town to float the river. This industry picks up at the start of July and runs through most of August. Heavy drinking occurs. Park rangers do what they can to pick up floating beer cans - sometimes empty, sometimes full. Church groups and locals alike usually come during the week to avoid the masses.
And our first story, coverage of the Sandhills Marathon, which was more fun than you can imagine. Getting up at 3:30 a.m. is totally worth it if it means you get a Sandhills sunrise and access to drive NEXT TO the marathon runners while the race is going on. What other marathon lets you do that?
Lastly, one of my favorite places I spent time this summer, Sicangu Village, which is just about as isolated as it looks. It’s nine miles north of Valentine and is the first community on the reservation. Across the highway is the Rosebud Casino.
The Fourth of July had a different feel in the village. The quote that puts it most succinctly came from Fred Marshall, who invited us into his home for the holiday. "We can’t celebrate Independence because we aren’t independent," he said.
A friend asked me the other day to rate the success of this project on a scale of 1-10. I gave him an answer, but it’s not an answer I think I can come up with and actually mean it.
The success of this project is that we (myself and the three others who put up with me all summer) went out on a limb and did something different.
We all thought this project was important enough to, when Kickstarter money started running dry, put in whatever we had, whatever we could, to make sure we could finish it right. We all thought this project was important enough to ditch whatever internship offers we had, to stop pursuing other jobs, to come out here and do it.
It’s a trend I want to continue as I finish up my last year of college and try and move forward with my career. And it’s inspiring to know that we’ve got this one partially under our belt, and we’re still just as excited about it as the day we started.
The risks will ultimately be worth it, and any failures along the way only taught us how to do this better.
Thanks to Jacob, Lauren and Nick for doing this with me, thank you to everyone in all of the communities we sunk ourselves into this summer and thank you to everyone who gave us support or encouragement along the way. That especially means those of you who visited and brought food.