Seeing America, Part 2: The Black Hills

I realize now that I had a strange education growing up. In my home and school, we spoke regularly about the history and plight of Native Americans. My family read Black Elk Speaks aloud alongside the Bible and other religious texts. We learned about Ojibwe customs in elementary school. Our Civics teacher taught us the Native American origins for the place names in our community. I had friends who lived on reservations.

When I drove west to the Black Hills, I was thrilled to see the placed I grew up learning about. How would I feel walking in these holy lands? How would I feel as a white interloper among the Lakota? How would I feel when I looked at the monument for the Wounded Knee Massacre?

CrazyHorse
Crazy Horse National Memorial – Work in Progress (June 2016)

While South Dakota contains some of the largest reservations in the US, their people were nowhere to be found. The presence of Native Americans seems reduced to a byword. Every county, town, and street seemed to bear the names of the Lakota: Sioux Falls, Minnehaha County, Cheyenne River, and Lake Oahe. With the exception of the Crazy Horse Memorial and small signs pointing towards reservations, the land seemed conspicuously free of the Lakota. The fields were fenced and filled with cattle. The small towns were full of casinos, motorcycles, and pro-gun t-shirts. People from all over the country visited, but they were mostly white and middle class.   

When I went to the nightly lighting ceremony of Mount Rushmore, the park ranger revealed that the original plan for included portraits of Lewis and Clark and Chief Red Cloud. This seemed more attuned to the spirit of the place – sacred to the Sioux and a symbol of white expansion. It was hard to sit through the twenty-minute long video that glorified George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt when they passively described Native Americans being removed from their land as if no one was at fault. I thought about the fact that months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln allowed the removal of Navajos and the Mescalero Apaches from the New Mexico Territory forcing women and children to march over 450 miles.  I understand, all men, even presidents, have flaws, and that doesn’t eclipse their great works. However, nobody spoke for the Lakota at Mount Rushmore. Nobody asked how the National Park Service acquired lands holy to these people.

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The Badlands National Park (June 2016)

Despite my frustration with the lack of insight into much of what I saw in the Black Hills, I was happy I made the trip. America is a vast and beautiful place. The Bandlands took my breath away. Antelope really do play in long prairie grasses. The sky is so blue. The grass is perfectly green. The vistas are almost too wide. In the midst of this beauty, as we appreciate this wonder, we must remember it was stolen.

Seeing America, Part 1: What Is Southern?

Two years ago, I decided to move to Memphis. When I told my friends and family, nearly all of whom are from great northern states, they were shocked. They said true and practical things like, “but you hate the heat” and “it’s so far away from home.” However, the also said some extremely biased things like, “they’re all racists down there” and “you’re not going to start carrying a gun.” Of course, as a life-long Yankee, I drove through Illinois and crossed the Mississippi uncertain and maybe even a little afraid.

NOLABVMNevertheless, I’ve learned a lot about “the South” since moving to Memphis. I think one of the most important lessons may be that it’s not the South, but Southern people. To think of everything south of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio as a unified whole is both unfair and inaccurate. Sure, they may say “ya’ll” but that doesn’t mean every person who lives down here believes and behaves the same.  For example, I was shocked at how different New Orleans is compared to other Southern cities I’ve visited. In NOLA, diversity pushed beyond race and challenged my ideas of what it means to be Southern. The obvious Catholicism made me feel like I was back in Chicago, New York, or Pittsburgh where the Poles, Latinos, and the Irish dominated for decades. Unlike Memphis, NOLA seems cosmopolitan and open.  Urbane not merely urban.

At the same time, NOLA does share the legacy of racism and slavery with Memphis. Walking around the French Quarter with music spilling out of every door, it’s hard to remember that slaves laid the bricks and were sold on the streets. Similarly, people wandering around downtown Memphis and onto Beale street, might miss the Ida B. Wells plague commemorating her work to end lynching throughout the South. The streets of most southern cities are full of these tangible reminders.

And yet, both cities still grapple with the socio-economic inequalities created by slavery. For NOLA, Katrina destroyed neighborhoods, broke families, and drowned people in the deluge. In Memphis, neighborhoods, families, and people are destroyed by gun violence. Both cities seem helpless in the face of this deluge. But, this isn’t unique to the South. Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis face similar challenges.

So, what does it mean to be Southern?  I’m still not sure. I know it requires thinking critically about race and poverty, but that’s not unique to this region. At the same time, the history of slavery and civil rights movement may require Southerners to act and speak more purposefully about these issues. As a carpet-bagger, I’m not sure I should lead the charge. But as someone who lives here now, I want to embrace the Southern in us all.