My lands are where my dead lie buried

21 July 2008

My lands are where my dead lie buried

A little tired from two full days on the road, we had planned to take the short trip from our campground just outside Custer National Park to visit two examples of where people have tried to augment the natural beauty of the South Dakota mountains through sculpture: Mount Rushmore National Monument and Crazy Horse Mountain. The contrast between the two monuments could not have been greater.

When we set out we had no real plan as to which site to visit first, it just worked out that as the in-progress Crazy Horse monument was closer up Highway 16 to our campground and we chose to visit there first.

I had heard about Crazy Horse Mountain from guide books that we picked up along the way and was prepared to be impressed, but nothing could have prepared me for how moving, how full of passion and how honest is its endeavor. It was a start contrast to Mount Rushmore (more about that later).

Crazy Horse Mountain

Crazy Horse Memorial was a revelation to me and it is already a staggering achievement. Started in 1948 and largely the work of just one family, that of sculptor, the late Korczak Ziolkowski, this memorial to Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse will ultimately transform a mountain into an 641 feet wide by 563 feet high statue. To put that into perspective, you could fit the whole of the Mount Rushmore statue into just the head of Crazy Horse.

It was conceived by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear who had said,

My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.

But the monument's achievement is not simply one of art or engineering, its a human story of one man's vision to dedicate his whole life to creating a monument to the native American peoples. The mountain sculpture is still a project driven by Ziolkowski's wife, his children and grand-children. It is entirely supported financially through private contributions and from proceeds from visitors like us rather than by tax payer's money and it is this passion and honesty, plus the story of Crazy Horse himself that helps to make the Crazy Horse monument so moving.

We took a bus ride from the visitor center, itself a wonderful exhibition of native American culture and history, to the foot of the mountain. The ride offers a different view of the memorial from that you see from the highway and as we stared up at the mountain's transformation an eagle soared above Crazy Horse's head. I couldn't help but wonder if that eagle was Crazy Horse himself, checking out his peoples' monument.

I won't see the monument finished in my lifetime, but I really hope that Alex will visit with his children one day to see it completed. Standing at Crazy Horse Mountain I realised fully that neither I, nor the other foreign tourists, nor the millions of people who now call themselves citizens of the United States, should ever forget that today I was standing on stolen land, occupied through political manipulations, warfare and at worst (in the case of Crazy Horse himself and others) cold-blooded murder.

Mount Rushmore

Our hearts lifted by what has become one of the highlights of our journey, we drove off to that symbol of another American nation, Mount Rushmore. The drive to Mount Rushmore is worth it if only for the spectacular scenery. The Black Hills of South Dakota are exactly as I imagined them to be, dramatic and beautiful with green trees peppered by spectacular rocky outcrops in amazing formations.

The Mount Rushmore National Monument itself was less impressive that photographs portray. Perhaps we had been spoiled by the wonder of Crazy Horse Mountain, I'm not sure, but instead of the passion we felt at Crazy Horse we were all left cold. The place and even the famous faces of the four presidents felt soulless. As these historic figures stared out across the landscape I couldn't help thinking that they each had a look of melancholy about them.

Of course, being a National Monument, the surrounding area with its visitor centre and amphitheater were very well organised with the visitor center itself teaching me more about American history and the United States' expansion west than I ever knew before. The exhibition on the monument's conception as an attraction designed to bring visitors to the Black Hills, through its construction was interesting too.

One of the explanatory panels in the museum read:

The four American Presidents carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore were chosen by the sculptor to commemorate the founding, growth, preservation and development of the United States. They symbolize the principles of liberty and freedom on which the nation was founded. George Washington signifies the struggle for independence and the birth of the Republic; Thomas Jefferson the territorial expansion of the country; Abraham Lincoln the permanent union of the States, and equality for all citizens, and Theodore Rooseevelt, the 20th century role of the United States in world affairs and the rights of the common man.

After standing at the foot of Crazy Horse Mountain, I couldn't help but ask myself how native American peoples must feel about Mount Rushmore. After all, many of their ancestors were forcibly evicted from their homelands and relocated into the area. When gold was later discovered in the Black Hills these native peoples were persecuted again.

They have seen their nations displaced while another was founded, suffered while others' territories expanded and theirs diminished and seen little equality. What must they feel when they look up and see the sixty feet high faces of their ancestral oppressors staring back at them?

By Andy Clarke

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