By Mark Messenger | July 9, 2018
This year, my family traveled to South Dakota for a vacation. We hit several touristy sights, including Jewel Cave, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, and Wall Drug. We did some hiking, biking, (very) amateur rock-climbing and saw lots of wildlife. My sister and my niece took lots of pictures and posted several times on Facebook, and for the most part, like many vacations, these experiences will probably fade away in my memory and get mixed up with other family trips.
However, there are three memories I hope I never lose.
- Driving through the Pine Ridge Reservation.
- Visiting Crazy Horse Memorial.
- Seeing a Hoop Dance demonstration at Mount Rushmore.
First, Pine Ridge. It’s shocking to witness the extremely poor housing conditions as I drive by at a comfortable 70 miles per hour. The nicely maintained highway is a stark contrast to the brown-gray muddy quagmire of roads and driveways leading up to dilapidated mobile and prefab homes with plywood-covered windows and weed-infested yards. Of course, what you don’t see is the 70% school dropout rate, the widespread alcoholism, the high mortality and suicide rates, the malnutrition, the depression, etc. I recently watched a YouTube video where Natives were asked to do a word association with the word “reservation” – they offered “prison,” “oppression,” “bleak,” “small,” “unfair” and even “damnation.”
I actually went to Crazy Horse Memorial twice. The first day it was so cloudy and misty that you couldn’t see the mountain, so the ticket office charged us half price and gave us a voucher to return on a clear day. We stayed anyway and stepped inside the visitor center, a very large, high-ceilinged building that has an almost casual atmosphere, with very little signage or direction. After aimlessly wandering the hardwood floors of the center for a short while, we discovered a theater showing a brief film describing the life of the revered 19th-century Lakota leader Crazy Horse and the efforts of Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear to commission a monument to Native American culture and traditions using the talents of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski who began construction in 1947. To this day, the massive sculpture depicting Crazy Horse remains an unfinished, living tribute. We learn that it is a work in progress, and since its beginning, not one dollar of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation’s funding has come from the United States or South Dakota governments, only from admissions and private donations. After the film, we browsed the passages of the visitor center filled with Native art, artifacts, cultural demonstrations and scale models of the sculpture showing its intended completed look. Visitors are also encouraged to take home rocks blasted or jack-hammered from the mountain during construction. Two days later, on a less cloudy day, we returned to see the mountain sculpture. There’s a certain emotion that grew in me as I looked up at the Lakota warrior’s stern profile, it’s hard to describe. It’s like a lump-in-the-throat and tears-welling-up kind of feeling. Knowing the history of his people, being aware of their present conditions and contemplating their future elicits such an overwhelming mix of feelings: sadness, frustration, guilt, hope, expectation.
OK, on to Mount Rushmore. Seems odd, right? On this day, just a few miles from Crazy Horse, I’m visiting a monument to the United States, the oppressors of the Natives. And it’s quite a contrast. Rushmore is all concrete and steel. Parking garages, elevators, and ramps and steps with handrails all lead up to a long grand flag-lined corridor ending at a vast stone-tiled observation platform with an amphitheater below large enough to hold concerts. I pick my way among tourists from all over the world who are vying for space to take selfies and group pictures with the great presidents in the background. But I’m suddenly distracted from all of this by a presentation taking place to one side of the platform. Starr Chief Eagle, a Lakota woman in her 20s, is giving a demonstration of the Hoop Dance. A uniformed park ranger, a Lakota man, is assisting her. Starr Chief Eagle is dressed in traditional clothes and accessories, speaks in a confident and powerful voice, and asks for volunteers from the tourists. She takes a group of children and adults through several dance moves and then talks to the crowd about Lakota culture and teaches us a few Lakota words: tatanka (buffalo), wanbli (eagle), and kimimila (butterfly). Then Starr Chief Eagle tosses an armload of colorful hoops on the ground and, accompanied by the park ranger’s stirring chant and rhythmic drum, begins a dance that she tells us represents the story of her life. The single hoop she picks up and moves with is her birth and as she continues to spin and dance, deftly gathering more and more hoops about her arms, neck and torso, she takes us through her adolescence, young adulthood and aspirations for the future. Again, that feeling I got at Crazy Horse starts to build in me. Watching this determined woman show the world who she is, where she comes from, and what she wants for her people is a profound and wonderful experience.
So, I went to South Dakota as a tourist, but I came back with a bit more than just a bunch of selfies and sore legs from hiking and mountain-biking. I have this piece of granite hacked from a sacred mountain, the memory of a beautiful, rainbow-skirted Lakota woman knotting hoops around her body, a haunting vision of muddy, deeply rutted driveways, and an emotional weight that somehow presses down on me and lifts me at the same time.
There are many related book and audiovisual resources available at the Salina Public Library including:
“Whereas” by Layli Long Soldier
“Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary” by Joe Jackson
“The Killing of Crazy Horse” by Thomas Powers
“The Plague of Doves” by Louise Erdrich
“Red Cloud: A Lakota Story of War and Surrender” by S.D. Nelson
“In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse” by Joseph Marshall,