Bill Groethe day in South Dakota

Dakota Digest - 09/02/2009

By Jim Kent

Just like there's artists and then there are artists, there are photographers and then there are photographers. One Rapid City photographer whose work has been seen all over the world is being recognized by the state today by having September 2, 2009 named in his honor.

SDPB's Jim Kent speaks with Bill Groethe to find out why September 2 is a significant date in his life for the past 61 years.

"I'm standing in a field in front of the State Game Lodge at Custer state Park," says reporter Jim Kent. "Everything's pretty much the same as it was back in 1948. There are tourists visiting the Game Lodge. There's a few buffalo wandering down the road, and there's the sound of birds in the trees. About the only thing that's missing are the survivors of the Little Big Horn."

"This is a photograph of a group of the 8 last survivors of the Little Bighorn Battle of 1876. I took the photograph September 2, 1948," says photographer Bill Groethe.

On any given Sunday, Bill Groethe is at Mt. Rushmore selling copies of his work. And though people are interested in many of his pictures, the one that draws the most attention is the black and white photo of the last survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

"It's in the Smithsonian. It's in major museums all over the world. They're in Australia and Japan, Europe and Italy along with a couple of places in England," says Groethe. "I haven't kept track. But we've given photographs to over 25 schools including Indian schools and colleges."

Bill Groethe has been taking, developing and selling photographs since he was 10 years old. He had the good fortune to live next to Carl Rise, an early pioneer of photography. Rise sold Groethe his first camera. Within a year, the young shutterbug was an apprentice at Bell Studios in Rapid City where he remained for 30 years. After serving in WWII as a photo reconnaissance technician for the Army Air Force, Groethe retuned home. He took a lot of wedding and commercial photos, but every once in a while the opportunity to shoot something different came along, including the dedication of Crazy Horse Mountain in 1948. As fate would have it, some of the last survivors of the Little Bighorn battle were in attendance.

"There were three of then there when I photographed at the Crazy Horse dedication. They decided to find out how many were alive. And there were nine alive, so they had this last reunion three months later at the Game Lodge at Custer Park," says Groethe.

One of the Little Bighorn survivors was photographed separately. But the rest had their image captured by Groethe for future generations in front of the Custer State Park Game Lodge.

"Of course, I'd been photographing several of these Indians for quite a while and they knew me. I photographed them many times. Mostly at the Sitting Bull Crystal Cave," says Groethe. "They have a big dance pavilion that's still there. I use to go to those dances and photograph them. So, that's how I knew them."

Groethe says the Little Bighorn survivors enjoyed having their photographs taken and were very cooperative subjects.

"You know, these are respected elders and great men. They were still alive at a late age, so they were nice to deal with," says Groethe.

Groethe says he realized the historical significance of what he was doing when he photographed the last survivors of one of the most controversial battles in history.

"Because, you know, I had grown up in the studio where we had hundreds of postcard negatives of Indians. You know? But I have always been a history buff," says Groethe.

In proclaiming September 2, 2009 as Bill Groethe Day in Rapid City and throughout South Dakota, the Rapid City Council cited the photographer's many artistic contributions to the state. But as far as Groethe is concerned, his black-and-white portrait photo of the Little Bighorn survivors is his greatest accomplishment.

"It was the most important thing I did," says Groethe. "Because a lot of people have taken pictures of Rushmore. Well, so have I. There are a lot of good photos of a lot of things. But there's only one of those."

Many may consider Bill Groethe a world-renowned photographer and the man of the hour. But Groethe just sees himself as a guy who loves to take pictures on film and show them to the public whenever he can.





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