The Black Hills: Stunning Scenery with a Troubled Past
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Custer’s name is plastered all over the Black Hills. It is difficult to stomach. This beautiful, sacred land that was stolen in the name of gold.
The Black Hills are a valhalla for tourists and lovers of the great outdoors. Yesterday was our first day here, and WOW. It is everything one would expect the "West" to be. Rugged. Breathtaking. Hints of danger in the haunting landscape. Dotted with ice cream parlors, historic saloons, and t-shirt emporiums, of course.
As our family explores these rugged, otherworldly hills, I try to see them as the indigenous people do (albeit through naive, uninformed eyes). How must it feel to live and work here, in the land where the Great Spirit brought forth the Lakota people?
The U.S. was in a deep depression when gold was first discovered in the Black Hills. President Grant had a difficult decision to make. Take the opportunity to bring his nation out of the depression, even though it would be illegally breaking the peace treaty with Native Americans? By this time, the conquering U.S. had already forced the indigenous peoples off of their lands and into reservations. The Black Hills were a consolation prize to defeated nations.
We all know the direction President Grant took. It is a part of our nation’s history, and their nations’ history. I imagine there’s no way our country will reverse what they have done, but must we glory in it? Custer State Park. The town of Custer. And perhaps the most insulting: the stunning work that is Mount Rushmore. Truly, did it need to be HERE?
Mount Rushmore was a mixed experience for me, this breathtaking boast of the making of a nation. On one hand, the tourist and U.S. citizen in me felt a thrill of patriotism, goosebumps on my arms as I gazed upon the pomp and glory of the monument and its surroundings. And as an art-appreciator, I cannot deny the stunning artistry, the monumental feat that is this project. However, we spent perhaps 3 minutes inside the museum. In my state of mind of seeking to rub shoulders with native history here, it was difficult to stomach the patriotic propaganda in the museum, the lack of well-roundedness in the story being told.
Mike and I differ a bit in our political views. But we hear one another, and we love to sharpen each other as we discuss.
In the car as we left the monument, our family discussed Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful words, which you can find etched in a stone plaque in the museum:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. (Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776)
It made for interesting family conversation. We feel the fervor and truth of these words as we fight for our independence from the British, but perhaps not so much when we have gold in view, and we are not talking about ourselves anymore?
It was a breath of fresh air to visit the Crazy Horse Monument soon after, and we highly recommend it. It is a place where you want to linger. The monument that is still in progress. The warmth of the family that has taken on this project for two generations. The wisdom and vision of the tribal elders who launched this project. The University that has been birthed here. The dance demonstrations. The quillwork and beadwork on display. I will share more in another blog post -- but truly, we recommend a visit to Crazy Horse!
Please understand me: I mean absolutely no disrespect to our nation’s true heroes, our veterans, or the office of the President, with all the difficult decisions he must make. But I appreciate that all of those people - "red and yellow, black and white" - have fought hard for us to have the freedom to question our leadership. If only this truly were a freedom that were, in Jefferson’s beautiful words, “self evident … unalienable ....”, to all people, throughout our nation’s short and storied history.