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Driving through the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, it is easy for me to see why the Lakota viewed this part of what is now South Dakota as a sacred space. In the plains, it seems to rise out of nowhere. Most who stumbled upon this particular topography in eras past must have wondered about the purpose and significance of this place. When we see something unusual, we tend to attach significance to it. This is not exclusive to the Lakota – all cultures and traditions seem to have ways to attach meanings, usually sacred meanings, to the unusual. How else do we explain something that does not fit? But the Badlands are not necessarily a sacred space for everyone, in the same way that not all people find places of religious worship sacred or places of civil religion sacred. Instead, the Badlands seem represent many things to many people. For some, it is a fascinating glimpse into geology, the movements of glaciers, the age and change of our planet, or a fossil record of long extinct animals and creatures that once roamed the Midwest. For others it is a sacred space, taken by white settlers and given to farmers and ranchers, and then eventually turned into a tourist destination. For others, it is merely a cool place to stop, climb, and enjoy some neat-o scenery unique to the midwest.
Mount Rushmore, in the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota, provides an interesting juxtaposition to the idea of a sacred space, considering its geography and location. Mount Rushmore is an impressively engineered man-made sculpture that has a deliberately patriotic tone (depending on your view of patriotism) and presents four presidents. Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln represent the foundation, preservation, and expansion of the United States. Well, from a certain perspective, anyway. In 1923, the South Dakota state historian, Doane Robinson, originally proposed a sculpture of heroes of the old west, such as Meriweather Lewis and William Clark (of the Corps of Discovery fame), and Red Cloud, the Sioux leader. Robinson recognized the significance of tourism in an era of automobiles and thought such a monument would bring more tourism to South Dakota. However, when sculptor Gutzon Borglum joined the project, he shifted the focus from a regional emphasis to a focus on national pride. Again, national pride from a certain point of view.
It seems ironic that Borglum choose a deliberately white, presidential, and political perspective of patriotism in a location that was historically Lakota Sioux (and before that, inhabited by the Arikaras peoples). A Mount Rushmore scale sculpture seems like it would make much more sense in Virginia or Washington D.C. than in the very place held sacred by the native inhabitants of the Black Hills. Mount Rushmore was originally a peak called the Six Grandfathers by the Lakota Sioux and considered part of a scared journey that culminated on Hearny Peak, the highest point in the region. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 allowed the Sioux to continue living in the Black Hills, a sacred place for the Sioux. However, when gold was discovered in 1874 by miners accompanying Custer’s “expedition” that passed through Sioux territory without permission by the Sioux, a gold rush ensued. The Sioux refused to give up their legally-held ancestral lands, and the Black Hills wars ensued. In 1877 the US government forced a treaty of relinquishment on the Sioux and put the Black Hills region under civil government. In 1980 the US Supreme Court ordered an approximately 106 million dollar compensation to be given to the Sioux since the US did not honor its treaty. Not exactly a proud patriotic chapter of US history. Expansion, yes, but at what cost? And who paid that cost, primarily?
I like national parks, I like sculptures, I like presidents, and I think honoring accomplishments of leaders is a good thing. I don’t particularly like singling out certain things to honor and ignoring the messy bits that make us feel uncomfortable, but I get it. Even obituaries don’t discuss all the annoying aspects or poor decisions a person has made in their lifetime. Focusing on the positive is not necessarily a bad thing. But when it comes to the sacred space of the Black Hills or the Badlands, I think it is important to be more thoughtful and respectful. While visiting Mount Rushmore, I heard and overheard many people musing about the Presidents represented and why they were chosen. As I contemplated the qualities and persons chosen, a wise person asked me, “well, what would you have chosen instead?” That’s a good question. I responded from a 21st century American perspective. I would have liked to see an image of cooperation or collaboration between white Americans and the native inhabitants. Or maybe a sculpture of the native inhabitants of the area, as a selective testament to their greatness and prowess. That seems more fitting in a sacred space of the Lakota.
Or maybe I should just consider the Black Hills as the sacred space of Alfred Hitchcock’s genius, the edgy backdrop for an exciting series of scenes in one of my favorite films, North by Northwest, starring one of my all-time favorite actors, Cary Grant.
I have yet to find a postcard with Roger Thornhill scampering over Jefferson’s nose to save Eve Kendall from Phillip Vandamm and his cronies, but it’s early in the week.
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College