A Crazy Big Finger – Visiting Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial

Sometimes we go to places that we have known long before we arrive. They are famous images and they are a symbol for a whole country. So when I came to look for America I made my way through the wild west to see Mount Rushmore. I found that reality rarely resembles the postcards. We have to go and zoom out for ourselves to see the full picture.
From Missoula I hitched a ride with an old drifter called Alan. He lives in Alaska but has been all around the country building mines. He was on his way to the south coast to do one last job. We ride through the wide open landscape, rolling hills and green fields until the endless blue sky grows dark and it starts raining. We stop and stare in awe at two beautiful rainbows that reach across the sky. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALater we pass by the memorial for the battle of Little Big Horn. This is were the Lakota Sioux fought back General Custer and his troops and gained one of the few big victories of the Indian Wars. Alan doesn’t know much more about it. “I just know that we screwed the Indians. And this is a big reservation, so we are going to stop for gas” he says. In the evening we park the car somewhere in the woods near Buffalo, Wyoming. We sit by the fire and drink Whiskey out of a bottle. We talk about mines and hunting in Alaska and I feel like I am in the Wild West. Like we just tied up our horses for the night. Alan tells me how he once went to Mount Rushmore with the Ex wife, but he didn’t think it was all that great. That was in the 70s, he says, when the Indians were still protesting on the mountain. In the morning Alan drops me at a nice spot. It is a beautiful, sunny day and the hills in the distance look glorious. Eventually I get picked up by a brand new Jeep. The car is silver and shiny and smells of new. The driver is on his way to work and very chatty. He owns a fleet of trucks and made some millions, as he says. I tell him I am going to see Mount Rushmore, which gets him very exited. “You have to see Crazy Horse as well. Its so big you can’t even understand it.” I have no idea about Crazy Horse and he explains that it is the Indian answer to Mount Rushmore. “They are basically giving us the finger by building a bigger monument.” Then he asks me if I mind leaving the main highway to use the dirt road, which runs parallel. Naturally I am a bit alarmed at this, but he explains that he wants to take a hit of Speed. This is strangely reassuring and accounts for why this guy is so hyper and talks like a waterfall. Since no great American road trip would be complete without ample drug use I soon find myself cruising along the dirt road, snorting speed and listening to heavy metal. We are rapidly approaching Rapid City.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Rapid City is a small town with eco hotels, micro breweries, back alleys full of art. It also features life sized statues of all the presidents, one on each corner of the town centre. Some of them are quite funny. Nixon is sitting down and has his hands put together like Montgomery Burns when he says “Excellent”. George W. Bush has his dog under one arm, and gives the thumb up to passing cars. He looks a bit moronic. I later read that the artist wanted to highlight the “native optimism about him”. My favourite was Bill Clinton, who looks like a game show host. Some guy tells me that he got knocked over once, but nobody knows how. I chuckle when I think about all the possibilities for drunk interaction these statues offer.
The next day I hitch a ride out to Mount Rushmore with some lady in a Camper, who is touring “all the great sights of America”. We pass through the little town of Keystone, which is the central of tourism in the area. Gift shops, tour company’s, zip lining and so on. We follow the road up to the monument and when we come around the corner we see it for the first time. Lurking out of the forest, towering over the magnificent landscape of the black hills.“Its so much bigger than I thought” the lady says. There is a viewing platform with a museum and a short trail that leads you to the foot of the hill. When you see things in a movie or on pictures your perspective is determined by others. Now you are here and you can walk along the presidents trail and see the whole thing from all the angles. You can go and look right up Washington’s nose. And you can see how Lincoln isn’t really finished on one side. If you look closely you can see what’s wrong with the picture you always had in your head. There is a little Native American heritage village along the presidential trail. It is just a hand full of Tipis and some hides that are hung up amongst them. In the Museum it’s all about the carving and the people involved in doing it. What a great feat of engineering. What they don’t tell you is that in 1868 the US Government signed a treaty with the Lakota Sioux that promised them that the Black Hills will forever be their sacred land. Forever only lasted until gold was found in the region. What followed is a long history of war and the near extermination of the Lakota people. And then 1927 they started carving the faces of four white man into the sacred hills, to celebrate 130 years of American history. Today they call it the “shrine of democracy”. I stand on the viewing platform and watch the sun and the clouds paint the presidential faces. Shadows run across their cheeks and sunlight lets their eyes twinkle.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Meanwhile in the Indian Camp… Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear had long petitioned to add a representation of a Native American hero to Mount Rushmore, but had been ignored. Thus he got in contact with Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who took on the task of carving a memorial to all Native Americans. When I walk down the long road leading up to the Visitor Centre I wonder how I had never heard of Crazy Horse Memorial before. This was the first time I had ever seen it. It wasn’t a pop cultural image etched into my mind. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd my speedy driver was right; it is to big to really grasp its enormity. When it is finished Crazy Horse Memorial will be the biggest sculpture in the world. The problem is that the monument isn’t nearly finished and the mountain looks somewhat injured by the sculpture. Going through the visitor centre I feel uneasy. The exhibition is a confusing collection of Native American artefacts from all over the place. There is a lot of quotes from famous leaders about how the white people mistreated them. The introductory short film is a strange adulation of sculptor Ziolkowski and his family. They have been sculpting away for some 68 years and so far only the face is finished. I talk to an old Lady who is with a big tour group. She asks me for a cigarette and then says that she has been here 20 years ago and nothing much has changed. In the cellar of the visitor centre I find two Native Americans that sell their artwork, but its dark and uninviting. Upstairs a group of dancers is grabbing tourist to join the Snake Dance. I ask myself if this is a place that is going to help heal old wounds. It sure has great potential. Apparently they want to build a Native American University and a Medical Training Centre, but only once the sculpture is finished. There is much controversy about why it is taking so long. (For more information read this NYT article). When I walk back to the main road I can’t help but think that Crazy Horse Memorial is a place that mourns the loss of a culture, rather than celebrate and shape its future. And there is a big pointy finger to support that notion. The legend goes that Crazy Horse was asked by a white men “Where are your lands now?” and he said “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
I hitch a ride back with a guy that takes tourists on Wild West Tours. They go and pan for gold and then visit Deadwood. He explains that you can keep any gold you find. People still secretly hope to get rich. He reckons that is what the Wild West is about. Going somewhere where you can just grab a piece of land, get rich, and shoot anything that is in your way. It is a tempting ideal. I can feel it every time I put my thumb out. It promises freedom and endless opportunity. So here I am. Zoomed out. Now when I see a picture of Mount Rushmore I know that it is surrounded by forest. I know that Pine Beatles have infested large parts of the forest and left the needles brown, the trees dead. I know that for some people it is not a “Shrine of Democracy” but an insult. I know that Bill Clinton’s statue in Rapid City got knocked over by a drunk person. And I will never forget how Alan and me saw that double rainbow. And isn’t that what travelling is all about? To see what is outside the postcard.

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