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?
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.
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.