Friday, February 18, 2011

Where My Dead Lie Buried

The great history of America is shadowed by some seriously questionable ways in which the westward expansion took place. Land was bought at bargain prices from the French, Russians and Mexicans while the rest was acquired through wars with colonial and native powers, the latter of whom were moved off of prime ancestral real estate and cheated out of the rest through treaties seldom honored and thus hardly worth the paper they were written on. One of those instances is the Treaty of Ft. Laramie.

Actually there were two treaties by that name. The first one in 1851 identified certain lands as sovereign to the Native American nation tribes between the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers that also provided safe passage for settlers on the Oregon Trail in exchange for both sovereignty and compensation. The feds never paid and never stopped settlers during the Gold Rush from staking claims in sovereign territory. The second treaty of 1868 was something different indeed.

This time the US Government was negotiating with the Lakota, Dakota and Arapaho Nations of the northern plains centered around Wyoming Territory. In order to end a two-year war in the area the second Treaty of Laramie was drawn up closing the Powder River Country to settlers and offer the locals financial and farming assistance. More claim jumping in Lakota territory by gold prospectors led to more and ever escalating fighting until the feds simply took all of the Black Hills in 1877.

Not long after this work began on Mt. Rushmore, still seen today by some as an insult to the Native Americans whose land this once was. The mountain itself was known as the "Six Grandfathers" until someone decided it should be named after a lawyer from New York. It didn't help matters upon discovery that the chief sculptor had been linked to the Ku Klux Klan. Four white presidents of the United States of America, two with military service and the other two managing wartime administrations carved in stone in the heart of "Indian" territory. Enter the Crazy Horse Monument, next stop on my post-furlough journey after Mt. Rushmore during the Fall of 2001.

Chief Standing Bear went to a sculptor that had worked on Mt. Rushmore and said "We have heroes, too." Crazy Horse was proactive in preserving the Lakota Sioux lifestyle, to put it mildly. He led a war party at the Battle of Little Bighorn among other notable skirmishes with both traditional Lakota enemies among the Plains Tribes and with US settlers and servicemen around Ft. Phil Kearny, Wyoming before dying mysteriously in US custody at Ft. Robinson, Nebraska in 1877. His legacy among Native Americans ranks with any powerful freedom fighter in US history.

Work started in 1948 and has been ongoing ever since, most notably in refusing each and every offer of federal and state assistance to complete the massive carving. The four heads of Mt. Rushmore will supposedly fit under the arm of Crazy Horse, such are the dimensions of this centerpiece to a cultural center aimed at educating all comers on the combined true story of the Native North Americans. At the tip of his finger is the chalked eye of the horse still to be blast-sculpted from the native rock. Although Native Americans of the time considered it rude to point, Crazy Horse is gesturing expansively across the Black Hills in answer to the question of where his lands were.

"Where my dead lie buried" was his response. His own grave remains a mystery to this day.

In a courtyard is a miniature of the completed sculpture. When looking past this statue to the real thing it is both easy and incomprehensible to get a true sense of scale, particularly since only the face is truly completed after 60+ years. Strangely, I felt a mix of awe and sadness in viewing the piece. Not only was there a countering cultural need for the work but also in the ironic sense that no matter the size and importance it would still be "the 2nd/other monument" in the area behind the four (white) presidents.

Is this "mission accomplished?" Mine wasn't.

Gotta go.

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