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Justice in the Black Hills

June 4, 2012

Over Memorial Day we drove up to South Dakota to camp in the Black Hills and see Mount Rushmore. Months of anticipation preceded this trip to the degree that Ella repeatedly remarked, “I can’t believe this is South Dakota.” I’m not sure what we expected.

We did not plan for freezing temperatures and heavy fog. Nor did we imagine it would require 3 attempts to even see the famous presidents.

My brilliant Pinterest finds of pre-cooked breakfast burritoes and apple crisp were scorched in my one new camping accessory, a cast iron skillet. The fabulous 109 mile bike path I made us haul 5 bikes to ride was too cold to attempt. And the real kicker came when Park Rangers commented on the fire smell wafting by as our stench reached their noses.

As we warmed up in the gift shop at Mount Rushmore, each of us picked a souvenir. They were classic choices. Sophie picked a stuffed mountain lion. Ella found a compass/thermometer/flashlight thing. And I chose a memoir written by a Lakota woman of the injustices suffered by her people. I did not realize yet that there was a very unexpected gem waiting for me in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

On our last day, we packed up and headed for Crazy Horse Memorial. The extent of our vast knowledge was that it was unfinished and Crazy Horse had been an Indian hero.

Holy bejeebers wow! This monument is going to be amazing! When finished, it will be the largest sculpture on Earth. The faces of Mount Rushmore will fit within the head of Crazy Horse. The property itself will be home to a Native American University and teaching hospital and a culture center for all the tribes of North America. The white marble statue in the forefront is the model of what will be behind.

It is already a museum with an impressive collection, a great education. But along with my new book, Lakota Woman, it has immensely saddened me to learn of the injustices suffered by First Nations/Natives/American Indians. Of course, we know this on an elementary level. But having grown up in Virginia where the occasional obnoxious teen still donned a Rebel flag in the back of his pickup, the civil rights movement and racism meant one thing to me. I remember leading discussions about racism for our high school student body, tensions still great in rural Virginia between blacks and whites. And even though it was one of the 13 colonies, home to Jamestown, Native American history took a distant backseat to the more pressing Civil War remnants.

I shamefully had no idea the extent of the brutal history and present suffering, pain that would explain systemic poverty and alcoholism. Did you know that as late as the 1970s children were taken from families on the reservations and raised in stern boarding schools, in an attempt to take the Indian out of the child? I remember hearing Richard Twiss, author of One Church, Many Tribes,  at The Justice Conference in February. He began to unveil for me the damage done by do-gooder whites to the culture, heritage, and humanity of his people. He is leading a movement to reclaim that culture and worship Jesus as a Native American. Beautiful.

The Black Hills are a sacred place to Indians. They were promised the land in a treaty in 1868 and then gold was discovered a few years later. I find it personally insulting that Mount Rushmore, with its 4 American iconic presidents, was carved right in the center. But I find it redemptive that Crazy Horse Memorial is being built nearby, without any government funds. I find it to be a moment of justice on Earth that we don’t often see.

A people able to reclaim their dignity and celebrate the uniqueness of their culture. I believe God smiles at that. I did. It certainly redeemed an otherwise disappointing camping trip.


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