Mount Rushmore was never on my list of must-sees when I was planning this road trip, but because it was something in the area I went ahead and put a pin on our map over those four famous faces. I was very excited to visit South Dakota but I wasn’t sure why. It sounded so wild and open to me, with an endless amount of things to see and do. We had two stops, with a few days planned in Custer and an overnight in Midland. I asked my sister for advice on what to visit while we were in the area, and consulted our Roadtrippers app as well, since it highlights points of interest. Zooming in past the obvious stop, we found so many other things to fill up our time in this tiny town, and made a conscious choice to focus on Native American run activities instead of supporting those that profit off of using their land.
It’s no secret that America has a… let’s say sticky? past with the Native Americans. Okay, not sticky. Genocidal. Violent. Exploitive. And nothing in my experience has portrayed this more clearly than our visit to Custer. In school I learned about Mount Rushmore, without learning about the history of the carving. It was created by violently exploding a sacred mountain that formerly bore the faces of the Six Grandfathers, who faced in the six sacred directions: east, west, north, south, above, and below. This monument was naturally occurring and representative of the magnificent power of nature to create beauty and a spiritual guide. However, in the 1920’s, there seemed to be a way to increase tourism to this sacred land that the government could profit off of, and the idea for Mount Rushmore was born. Of course, in school, I learned that Mount Rushmore was a testament to the great politicians of our nation, who gave us the freedom we have today. And, while no president is perfect, these four represent a history of violence against the native people. Two of them owned slaves, Roosevelt once said, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian",” and Lincoln ordered the execution of the Dakota 38+2 on the same day he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. To the native people, these carvings on their sacred hillside are a stark and eternal reminder of the violent history of colonization that has scarred their people for centuries. And, while admission to the monument is free, parking costs $10, and we decided not to pay any money or attention to this place that has caused so much pain throughout it’s existence.
So what to do instead? There is a much more impressive, immersive, educational, and entertaining experience available just a few blocks away at the Crazy Horse Memorial, run by and benefitting the Lakota people. For only $12, you can visit a museum detailing the long history of the Lakota people in the Black Hills, see videos explaining how a carving of this size is achieved, view and even purchase native art and pottery, and know that your money is going straight into the pockets of the native community for their education and preservation. There is even a beautiful show featuring a family, where they demonstrated their people’s songs, dances, and beautifully communicated the history of their land that we were fortunate enough to visit and experience. The family’s young daughter, only four years old, performed a traditional hoop dance to her father’s singing and chanting. They took us on a spoken word journey through a powwow, which Nathaniel has actually experienced live in person! He used to work for a Casino on a reservation where they hosted powwows that he attended while working.
The main draw to this area is the memorial to Crazy Horse himself. A warrior of the Lakota tribe, Crazy Horse was chosen for his unwillingness to submit to the colonizers, until his very last breath. He never attended a negotiation, he never signed a treaty, and he never backed down. He died in a personal attack at close range, resisting arrest for simply living on the land his people had cared for for centuries. The statue is not based off of Crazy Horse’s likeness, but is meant to resemble the basic features of the tribe, so that anyone of the Lakota could envision themselves in his place. It is a magnificent and moving carving that features his hand, extended from horseback, as he says, “My land is there, where my people lie buried.”
A small model, with the carving in the background
I’ll leave some information out, like the history of the sculptor, the extensive process of carving into a mountain-face, and all the work that is being done with the money earned from admission so that you will have plenty to learn when you visit for yourself. But, after visiting Crazy Horse, we knew we couldn’t see Mount Rushmore without feeling incredible sadness for the mark that it left on the Black Hills, the heart of the Western Hemisphere. We spent the next few days in Custer, SD very aware of the obvious markers of colonization everywhere around us. For example, the town was named for General Custer who had a hand in the extermination of countless natives. Custer was also the one who found gold in the Black Hills, which nullified the treaty that the Lakota had with the federal government, which desperately wanted to mine the land once they learned what valuable secrets were lurking beneath the surface. To them the promise of riches was worth more than the human lives that would be lost in the process. Every gift shop features “Genuine Black Hills Gold!” and serves as a constant reminder of the greed that tore this area apart.
Crazy Horse Memorial is not finished. The mountain is marked with the outline of his horse, which his solemn face and outstretched hand sit above. The area that is currently carved, only a small portion of the entire sculpture, is larger than all four heads on Mount Rushmore combined. From a mile away at the Visitor’s Center you can see the pain and fury in Crazy Horse’s eyes as he looks over his land, filled with the bodies of his brothers who fought for freedom. Rather than rush through construction, the artist involved his entire family in the design and execution of this important monument, and now involves the entire community as his vision takes shape. I doubt it will be finished in my lifetime, the sheer size and scale of such a project, as well as the rejection of any financial help from the federal government, slow the construction. However, I look forward to future visits to see the progress.
For only $12, we gained admission to a museum, an art history lesson, a performance, and saw a massive carving that would take shape before our very eyes. Oh, and the laser light show! How could I forget the laser light show? If you hang onto your ticket, you can come back later that night to experience a show from the parking lot, which is equipped with speakers to tell a beautiful visual story of the history of Crazy Horse, and impart the spirit of the Lakota people. This show outlines what the sculpture will look like when it is finished, and it’s stunning to see it in front of you, larger than life. I’m proud of our decision to skip Mount Rushmore, and I encourage you to do the same. I have pride in my country, and that means that I recognize the mistakes of our past, and strive to move forward with love and acceptance for all people who call this land home. I’ll fill our South Dakota chapter with all the things we did to fill up our time, so that if you’re planning a trip you’ll see that there’s no shortage of activities to make your vacation memorable!
Because a visit to Crazy Horse is not possible to do safely right now, you can check out their website here to learn about the history of the man and the mountain. You can even make a donation, if you choose, to further this project. Click the link below to learn more!