I'm prepared to not like Mt. Rushmore. It is such an obvious affront to Native peoples who have long considered the Black Hills their Holy Land - The Heart of Everything That Is. Those four giant granite heads, the Great White Fathers, lording it over land that was deeded to the Sioux and Cheyenne in perpetuity in 1868 in the Fort Laramie Treaty that barred all white settlers and travelers. In 1874, George Armstrong Custer led a 1,000-man expeditionary force into the region, which included miners who discovered gold. Congress tried to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux who refused, at which point the government just took the land and demanded the Sioux move onto the reservation. This, of course, led directly to the Great Sioux War and the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, and the eventual end of the Plains Indian nomadic way of life.
Despite this history, and the detritus that comes with an obvious tourist destination, I'm moved by the sculpture. Its power and grace, its size and beauty. The technical proficiency of it. According to the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, the idea was to "place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were." It has also been a boon for tourism and brings in over three million visitors a year to the area.
I set up camp at Wind Cave, the place of the Lakota Emergence. The campground is out in the prairie. It's quiet with not so many other campers until a family from Minnesota arrive in a yuge motorhome. They spend little time outside, choosing to run their generator and watch movies. The campground has a bathroom, which is nice. The first thing I see, I'm sure by design, is a poster reminding me I am in mountain lion territory and if I should see one I should act big. I truly hope I don't have to put my acting skills to use.
The Crazy Horse Memorial has been high on my list for this trip and I've been saying, only half facetiously, that I was hoping Crazy Horse might have answers for my life angst. My friend Michael Carlebach, another photographer, who visited the area earlier in the summer assured me I would get no answers if my questions were photographic as there was no good angle to picture the sculpture. He was right about that. Another friend, an old elementary school classmate who I've recently heard from, Donna Xander, didn't think I'd find spiritual answers either, primarily because of the feel of the place. She was right, too, it wasn't conducive to any kind of meditation.
I pay four dollars for a bus ride to the base of the mountain. To get to the top to have a close-up selfie with Crazy Horse costs $125. The bus driver says there are ten or twelve full-time, year round workers on the mountain. He said, because of the iron content in the granite, the workers lose more time to lightning storms than snow and ice. The sculpture was begun in 1948, the year after I was born, and when asked, the driver says he thinks it will easily be another seventy-five or a hundred years before it's completed. The finished project will be four times the size of Mt. Rushmore. The project has not been without controversy, primarily from Native groups who believe the land was for meditation and enjoyment, and not to be carved into symbols. I think most would have just as soon left the mountain as it was.
After Crazy Horse had surrendered and gone to the reservation, not long before he was murdered while in custody, he was asked where his lands were now in the face of his surrender? He, now famously, replied, My Lands Are Where My Dead Lie Buried.
Is this the same question I've been asking myself - in the face of change, where is my place? With my ancestors? Where I've invested my time and energy? Or is it someplace completely new?Maybe Crazy Horse does have answers.
I make my way over to Devils Tower in Wyoming, another Native sacred space, now a National Monument. Actually, it is the country's first National Monument, established in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt under the new Antiquities Act. It's crowded with people around the entrance - families with running, yelling children, elders moving slowly with walking sticks and daypacks, and climbers (over 5,000 a year) scaling the 865-foot face. Most everyone gives only cursory acknowledgement to this force of nature. I take the longer of the trails around what many Native people called Bear 's Lodge and it's there I find a degree of silence and a clearer sense of place. A pine forest that gives way to native prairie, a light breeze, color in the forest, the monolith looms above me wherever I walk. Its presence is dominant, and after a time, I expect it to be there. missing it when it falls from sight around a bend or behind a hillock.
It seems to be the same in many of these sacred spaces - there are quite simply too many people to find any degree of solace. And those people have such diverse ideas of how these places should be preserved and made available to the public. In the campground, a group of boy scouts arrive at dark and set up their camp, complete with mobile kitchen. They're loud - big talking and big laughing people. It's cold so I'm in bed early.
I wake thinking of Kate. Her travels over the last few years have been an inspiration for me. How fortunate I am to be able to take this needed trip. To be slow, empty of sound, and not overwhelmed by the day-to-day.