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The Power of Narrative

By August 1, 2016 7 Comments

Recently, I wrote about sacred spaces in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Historically, the Badlands and Black Hills were sacred spaces for the Lakota Sioux, long before rumors of gold brought whites to take over the area, despite treaties that officially recognized the land as belonging to the Sioux.

I anticipated that the Crazy Horse Memorial would provide a much-needed balance to the one-sided view of American patriotism embodied in Mount Rushmore. The Crazy Horse Memorial claims to be the world’s largest mountain carving, in progress. It is an image of the legendary Teton Sioux leader, Crazy Horse, riding his horse and pointing. Crazy Horse is most well-known for leading a band of Lakota Sioux warriors against Custer’s 7th US Cavalry Battalion at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. According to the Memorial, Crazy Horse’s left hand points his response to the mocking question posed by a US Cavalry member, “Where are your lands now?” Crazy Horse responded, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.” A sobering statement and very different image from the vision of expansion expressed in Mount Rushmore.

However, I found the Crazy Horse Memorial was not exactly what I anticipated. The sculpture is impressive and beautiful, and I loved the scale, movement, and the ferocity captured in the image. But the cultural center and exhibitions failed to provide a clear narrative, or, in this case, counter-narrative to the typical white American version of US history and expansion. The Memorial contained a vast array of exquisitely beautiful cultural artifacts from not only the Lakota but from other natives around the current US. It also contained many artifacts and a history of the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, hired by Lakota chief Standing Bear in the 1940s to create the Crazy Horse sculpture to recognize the Lakota. But I found myself disappointed by the lack of clear narrative about the Lakota in the Black Hills. Visitors were left impressed by the beauty of the cultural objects, the functions of those objects, and the creators of those objects. But the Memorial did not explain what happened, why it happened, and what happened to the Lakota since the fateful late nineteenth century in US history. To be fair, as a historian, I resist the pull of a singular narrative and attempt to construct and reconstruct competing and complimentary narratives of events, people, places, and ideas. But with no clear narrative, the student in the classroom or visitor at the Memorial is left with many fascinating objects, but no sense of how they fit together or why they matter. That’s the power of narrative. A singular narrative can obliterate all but a single thread of history. But the lack of narrative leaves a pile of random piethose-who-tell-the-stories-native-american-proverb-quotes-sayings-picturesces from the past with no coherent meaning.

The irony is that the Crazy Horse Memorial website provides a better narrative than the actual Memorial did. If you are interested, check it out here. I wish the website author could have worked more closely with the Memorial to provide a clear narrative experience that could still provide for nuance and complexity within that narrative thread. The story of Crazy Horse and the Memorial itself offers much fodder for nuance. For starters, no image of Crazy Horse was ever made, by Crazy Horse’s request. So unlike the four presidents represented at Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse image is a guess. Does that make it any less meaningful? Most claim that the sculpture is a recognition of the spirit of Crazy Horse rather than an exact liking. But would Americans visit Mount Rushmore if the images of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln were in the spirit of those men instead of actual representations? I think sculpting the largest mountain sculpture of a man who left no images of himself adds even more significance and nuance to the story of the Memorial and Crazy Horse himself, as well as the Sioux.

Crazy Horse Memorial is privately funded, in contrast to Mount Rushmore, a national park. In fact, the American taxpayers footed the bill for the creation of Mount Rushmore and its nearly one million dollar price tag. An interesting contrast to the two mountain sculptures, isn’t it?

Another narrative thread not addressed by the Memorial is the legitimacy of a giant sculpture of Crazy Horse in the sacred Black Hills. Some natives support the Memorial as an opportunity to provide a competing image to the white presidential vision of expansion embodied by Mount Rushmore. Other natives find this competition distasteful. Some say that Crazy Horse himself would have never approved of such a self-glorification. Others say this carving of an image in the sacred Black Hills is inappropriate and inconsistent with Lakota beliefs about sacred spaces.

So, in other words, there is a basic narrative of the Lakota that is in direct contrast to the white expansion into native lands and territories in the years after the Civil War and it needs to be clearly articulated in an accessible way to the general public. But that narrative is not singular – it is varied. The power of a narrative is significant, but untrustworthy without nuance and complexity.

After all, since when has anything in human history been truly simple?

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Fine reflections, Rebecca! I too found the memorial fascinating but disappointing–more a whites-view-noble-savage thing than a Natives-speak-for-themselves thing. I will share this on FB, with a photo or two of the site.

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    And what does this lack of narrative then say to us Reformed Christians and how we share the Gospel?

  • Emily R. Brink says:

    Thanks very much, Rebecca. Any way you can send this message to whatever private group “owns” this display? Do you know of a narrative that addresses the fuller picture? Can your students help to write parts of the narrative? In other words, you point in a good direction, I’d love to see you and/or others follow your good lead!

  • Lou Roossien says:

    Thanks for sorting out some of the narrative threads of Black Hills history, and for lifting from the shadows the complexity of some of the Native Americans who peopled this land we later claimed as America.

  • Amy Schenkel says:

    Good insights- thank you. As we traveled through the Canadian Rockies this summer we appreciated the information boards dedicated to telling the history of the First Peoples in that area- often right alongside the stories of the European settlers. Multiple narratives gave a more complete picture of the story.

  • Ben says:

    The ‘where are your lands now?’ question may have been intended to mock, but it was still valid. If we’re going to talk about the power of narrative, the reality is that the Lakota were themselves very recent interlopers into the region, who conquered it from the Cheyenne. All the claims that it was central and sacred to their culture was a relatively recent invention. Crazy Horse’s famous line was basically a smartass non-answer. I’m sure plenty of Cheyenne and Arikara are buried out there as well. So logically it must be their land too.

    The Lakota shouldn’t have been stabbed in the back after signing a treaty, but they also weren’t exactly the blameless natives to the area unjustly kicked off their land that is commonly portrayed. They took it by conquest from those weaker than themselves, and ultimately lost it it again to those stronger.

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