July 21-24, 2017
Hermosa, South Dakota
Badlands National Park, Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse Monument, Custer State Park
As our route has taken us across the US in a path that somewhat follows America’s westward expansion, I feel forced to hold two truths in tension: our founding fathers set forth to establish what could possibly be the finest country in all of human history, and the generations that followed were tirelessly committed to strengthening this identity. But it is also true that these goals were met by quick and merciless exploitation of the land, the animals, and most importantly the people who were here first. These are the truths that pull at separate parts of my emotions when we visit some of these places. It’s partly patriotism, nostalgia, flags and fireworks, and being taught a certain opinion from history books and John Wayne movies. But the other part is the guilt of being one snowflake in an avalanche, claiming naively, “It’s not my fault!”
Mt. Rushmore is an amazing work of art and an impressive feat of engineering. The men depicted did amazing things for our country and deserve to be celebrated. Washington – the father of our country. The public wanted him to become emperor because of his dignified moral character and leadership. Jefferson is remembered for his vision of our nation stretching from coast to coast, and his contribution to our government of reluctantly writing the first draft of the constitution. There’s Lincoln, who held us together through civil war, nearly just by sheer strength of character, and must be remembered by future generations. And Roosevelt, the moose-riding, buffalo-hunting, passionate and energetic man who drank 20 cups of coffee a day, who was maybe one of our best presidents ever but didn’t really even want the job. He’s on the monument because of his legacy of propelling us onto the world stage, but is also notable for his work in conserving the natural spaces in the west. The 60 foot faces in the mountain, beautiful even though they are only a part of the original dream of the sculpture, are definitely a sight to behold. But one must consider that they were blasted into a mountainside in the Black Hills, which had been sacred lands to the native people for thousands of years. I would think that to people of native decent, memories other than what I just listed are conjured when they see the granite faces. Like Custer’s attack on the natives at the Little Bighorn River, just a few years after he’d shared a peace pipe with them. Or maybe they remember the slaughter of the bison herds to near extinction by the US military, in an attempt to defeat the natives through starvation. Many of the trails in these hills are scattered with prayer bundles – small bits of ribbon or cloth tied to trees in the religious tradition of natives who continue to come to worship in these areas. But this area is now also covered with concrete promenades, flags for each state proudly flying, with images of the American God of Power carved directly into the earth. Also, ice cream and teeshirts are available.
I feel like I’m not supposed to say these things. I feel like it’s blasphemy against our democracy to suggest that we did things the wrong way, in many instances even becoming what we despised. But it’s hard to deny these tensions when you take the 20 minute drive from Rushmore to the Crazy Horse Monument. Crazy Horse is larger (all 4 presidential faces would fit on the profile of his face & hair), but less finished. When you see how much of the sculpture has been completed over the years, you have to wonder whether or not it will ever be finished. The original artist began work over 50 years ago, and it will likely take at least that long to complete it, as his 10 children have taken over the work and accept no public funds, and you can understand why. As Sitting Bull was quoted to say of the US government, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.” With the Crazy Horse sculpture peeking out of the mountain in the distance, we sat on a back patio and listened to a Native American flutist play music and tell stories about the history of his people, the Ojibwe.
Much like Jefferson had a vision of a nation from coast to coast, the Ojibwe people also had a vision. The tribe was originally from the east coast, but one of their elders prophesied that another group of people would come from the ocean to take their land, and instructed they should travel west until they get to the place where food grows on top of the water. They migrated west and settled in what is now northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, when they found the wild rice marshes. As we listened to the beautiful music, Crazy Horse pointing out in the background that “My land is where my dead lie buried,” I was almost moved to tears. I had actually considered not even paying the $30 to visit this landmark. I wondered if it was just another ploy to get tourists to exit their route and drop a few dollars. I wondered if it was just a competitive answer to the completion of the president faces in the mountain a few miles away.
But after visiting there, I would say, so what if it is? These are stories that we must accept as part of our history and remember for future generations. These are painful truths, and they are recent. We are a strong, bold, and creative people, but we went from the oppressed to the oppressor in very few generations. As I consider what this knowledge means for me in practical ways, I feel confused and powerless. So I remind myself that for the privileged like me, equality will feel like oppression. And I commit myself to the eager continuation of learning new things, and seeing old things from new perspectives. And the rest, I suppose, is yet to be seen.