30 May, 2012

Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial

As an outsider of liberal bent and with an interest/education in history, I found visiting Mount Rushmore and the nearby Crazy Horse memorial to be both uncomfortable and fascinating. Nearly a couple of weeks ago, we drove north of Custer through the Black Hills to see Mount Rushmore. We approached it through a valley in the Black Hills rather than from the plains to the east so we rounded a corner, having briefly glimpsed Washington from the road, to see an enormous multi-storey car park (well, this IS the USA) and in the distance somewhat obscured by the large memorial architecture, the sculpture itself. 

Without car park and monumental avenue of flags to block the view
I'll be honest. I was a bit disappointed. It is smaller than it appears in photos or indeed with Cary Grant climbing all over it (he didn't really, and there is not one mention of North By Northwest that I could find anywhere at the Monument, even though I suspect it's the first time most people encounter Mt Rushmore).    We went to the museum first, and then watched the "orientation" film. Cue "patriotic music"! The project was originally conceived by a local historian who wanted the nearby Needles to be carved in the likenesses of many western heroes - Custer, Buffalo Bill, Red Cloud. Thankfully we can only imagine what that would have looked like. Instead the plan changed to a sculpture with a "national focus" on Rushmore which was made of less fragmented rock. With federal funding, the sculptor Gutzon Borglum worked on the sculpture from 1927 to 1941 when he died. 

After a short walk around the park looking up at the stone faces, we drove on to the Crazy Horse Memorial. A huge contrast. This is an enormous monument and an enormous project. It is privately run and privately funded, a family business, and was conceived by several Lakota elders led by Henry Standing Bear. It is also a work in progress. So far Crazy Horse's face is complete and work on the horse's head is ongoing. 

There's no question that Crazy Horse was developed originally as a riposte to Mount Rushmore - Henry Standing Bear said "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too." And it's not hard to see Mount Rushmore as the act of victorious colonizers. Just over fifty years after the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed, agreeing ownership of the Black Hills by the Lakota, and just under fifty years after that Treaty was broken by the USA resulting in the Great Sioux War, the US government paid to have a sacred Lakota mountain carved with the faces of four white men, by a sculptor who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, this isn't the way it's presented at Mount Rushmore. That's all about "conquering the west" and "uniting the country" and "honouring the ideals of America" and the people who were conquered and forced off their lands don't really get a mention.

You may say fifty years is a long time, but I suspect it wasn't to the Lakota survivors of Little Bighorn who commissioned the Crazy Horse Memorial in the late 1920s and were still living to see the first blast some twenty years later, shortly after Mount Rushmore had been completed.  Just as the English look at Ireland and wonder why so much fuss is still made about William of Orange and Oliver Cromwell, so I am sure Americans look at the Black Hills of South Dakota and wonder why Native Americans are exercised about the Treaty of Fort Laramie. 

But events of the past do matter and indeed perhaps they are not in the past. Here's a link to news earlier this month of the visit from the UN Special Rapporteur, James Anaya, to the Black Hills to investigate the USA's progress on adherence to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (clue: he wasn't very impressed).

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