03 September 2008

"the red man has great heroes too"

Interior, South Dakota / Mile 3,709 -- This leg of our road trip was supposed to be mostly about great scenery and gigantic presidential heads, but for me the real show-stealer has been the heartbreaking history of the Native American people in this region. I don't think I was completely prepared for the emotional impact of that history. Perhaps it's because in Alaska, the Native community has fared well in comparison with the lower 48. Don't get me wrong, the Alaska Native community has serious problems to contend with, and the list is largely the same as in the rest of the country: poverty and unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, and the loss of language and culture among the youth. But due to a number of factors -- geography, Alaska's relatively late annexation by the white man, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act -- Natives are numerous, relatively prosperous, and a force to be reckoned with in Alaska. That's a very far cry from the status of Native people in South Dakota.

About ten miles from Mount Rushmore stands the world's biggest sculpture, a massive and massively unfinished statue of Crazy Horse that is being carved painstakingly into the Black Hills. Currently, only Crazy Horse's face is finished; the head of his horse is the next step. The statue is so huge that each of Crazy Horse's pupils is 5 feet in diameter, and the hole in the mountain that will eventually be the space between the man's arm and the horse's back could hide a ten-story building. The four heads of Mt. Rushmore could into the single head of Crazy Horse. I'm sorry to say that we never actively planned to visit the Crazy Horse monument, but I am glad that we did, and I might have placed a higher priority on visiting if I had known that I am part of the memorial's intended audience.

You might think that the Crazy Horse statue is in some ways a response to Mt. Rushmore, and you would be right. Construction began in 1948, seven years after Mt. Rushmore was completed. The Sioux chief Standing Bear, who commissioned the work, told the sculptor, "my fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes too." Crazy Horse, a warrior chief, was never defeated in battle, never consented to live on an Indian reservation, never signed a meaningless treaty, and most likely was never photographed. (His likeness is a composite made from oral descriptions from elders who as young men saw him in the flesh.) The sculptor, a Boston-born Polish American named Korczak Ziolkowski, also had a compelling story. He began work on the monument with rickety equipment and only mountain goats to keep him company. Since his death in 1982, his wife and seven of his ten children have carried on the work. Korczak reminds me a lot of Rodney Clark, a dear soul with whom I worked in Alaska, and who possessed a lot of the same qualities: grand ambition, wild-eyed optimism, involvement of his entire family, and the willingness to adopt other people's causes as his own.

I think the Crazy Horse monument captures the pride of Native Americans very well, but it's a sad pride, a pride rooted more in the past than the present. It also seems fitting somehow that the monument is unfinished and doesn't seem likely to be finished in my lifetime. Naturally, the monument and everything else we have been seeing inspired some pretty intense discussion among the three of us, particularly as we puzzled over what the appropriate response of a 21st-century white person to all of this might look like. We've all spent the last few years in "helping" professions of one kind or another, so our discussion about Native issues fit in with the larger questions we share about the appropriateness of the kinds of "helping" that we have been doing--and whether "helping" is even the right approach to the world at all, or if we should aspire only to not be part of the problem.

We did visit Mount Rushmore too, and despite the complications to one's American pride that this part of the country can bring, I enjoyed that monument as well. It helps to remind myself that human history has been about 95 percent barbarism, and the American experiment -- however many glaring imperfections it has had in practice -- is a rare flash of light in that darkness. The dead white guys on the mountain were far from perfect, but as Standing Bear implicitly acknowledged, they're "great heroes" too.

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