big heads

big heads

big heads chris congdon upstairs project.jpg

The minivan was making an odd thumping noise.  I was glad it wasn’t mine and felt sorry for whoever owned it.  A tow truck was going to be expensive this far from town.    

It was my first trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota and I can see why people come.  In appearance, the Black Hills are classic American West, with an authentic history of mining and towns that boomed and busted.  The terrain is rugged but more approachable than the high peaks of the Rockies.  Beautiful blacktop roads twist through the valleys, making it a must-ride destination for motorcyclists, and the dirt trails in the hills do the same for those who like to get off the pavement.  We were here to ride mountain bikes, but it would have been a shame to come all this way and not see the Famous Local Attractions.    

The big heads are the big deal so we went to see them and marveled at the audacity of the projects.  The Mt. Rushmore carvings are certainly a colossal piece of art and engineering ... working on such a large scale and yet, getting enough detail that the faces are recognizable.


The viewing plaza and visitor center are clean and very nicely done. The whole facility points toward the carvings and frames them perfectly.  We found our home state’s flag among the others lining the promenade and that always makes me proud because the motto on it is more American-sounding than any other state’s: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain, so back off!”.  (I added that last part, but I think it helps to amplify the sentiment and the legislature should consider making it official.)  

Rushmore’s setting in the Black Hills is gorgeous and I’m in favor of anything that gets people outside, and by golly the people were here in droves to ooh and ahh and make the short hike to the base of the mountain which isn’t quite as far as the walk from the parking lot, but almost.  Everyone looked to be suitably impressed and lots of selfies were being shot with cell phones.  The sky and the light were perfect so serious photographers were there with big lenses to capture the grandeur. There was even a marriage proposal on the viewing deck.  She squealed and said yes, which was a huge relief because it would have been real embarrassing for about five thousand people if she hadn’t.  

But honestly, I was left feeling a little hollow by Mt. Rushmore.  The interpretive film talks a lot about how the carving came to be, but when one questions “why?” the answer is no more compelling than “art for art’s sake”.  Maybe that should be compelling enough … I don’t know.  

The site itself is not historically significant - it’s not a battlefield or the location of an important treaty.  It’s just a mountain that has good rock for carving. It was a long drive to go look at four carved faces, and for me, it was about as exciting as that sounds.  Underneath its purpose of celebrating the four presidents, Rushmore is a manufactured tourist attraction, like Wall Drug, only classier. I wasn’t moved to lumpy-throated national pride, but I can appreciate a big job done well, and Rushmore certainly is that, so I’m glad to have visited.    

The Crazy Horse carving was better than Rushmore.  First, it’s bigger - waaaaay bigger.  Second, it sits within land that was sacred to the indigenous Lakota people, so there’s a reason for having it here - a connection to this particular piece of land. If we’re going to put faces on mountains, Crazy Horse seems a more legitimate choice for the Black Hills than four guys from out east - only one of whom ever came near the place.  Also, the carving is part of a dream of something bigger for the site: a place of commemoration of the people who lived on this continent before the Europeans showed up and shoved them aside.  The development plans for the site include a cultural, educational and medical center for Native Americans - all worthwhile things.  There’s already a nice museum.  

crazy horse chris congdon upstairs project.jpg

Still, the carving won’t be done for decades - and much of the presentation was about the exacting, painstaking work of blowing up the mountain, rather than about Crazy Horse himself.  Like Rushmore, the carving is an enormous project - enough that the “how” will always be a big part of the story.  But we spent a couple hours there - watched the movie and everything - and I learned a lot more about the sculptor than the sculptee.  I don’t feel like I know Crazy Horse any better than before.

It turns out that Crazy Horse is the individual chosen to represent the nobility of spirit of the native peoples, and so the sculpture is of him, but not necessarily about him.  Again, it was a beautiful day in a beautiful place and I’m glad I saw it, and now I don’t have to do it again unless they get a whole bunch more work done before I’m too old to travel.  

It was in the Crazy Horse parking lot that we encountered the thumping minivan.  The engine was running and a man was inside it.  There was a knocking noise coming from it that at first I thought was an engine in distress and I was just about to say something to MSL about how the vehicle didn’t sound very healthy when I realized the man inside the van was Native American and the thumping was a recording of drums that he was listening to.  He sat in the driver’s seat with his eyes closed and his head nodded in time with the beat.  Clearly, he was having a spiritual moment inside the car - he may have been praying or centering himself before visiting the grounds or working a shift as a volunteer in the museum.    

I didn’t talk to the guy. I didn’t knock on the minivan’s window and ask, “Hey dude, are you a real Indian?  Whatcha doin’ in there, praying to the Great Spirit or somethin’?”  It’s not really my style to talk to people because I’m afraid my questions won’t sound any smarter than that. Besides, it’s so much easier to just observe people in a detached way and then make the assumptions and generalizations necessary to fit them into a story like this one than it is to actually talk to them - It’s why I’m an essayist and not a journalist.   

But, I wonder what this place means to him … the hills, the nearby plains, the mountain carving and the museum.  It is a place of honor - a place of hope and optimism - and there have been precious few of those for the First People since the Europeans arrived.  

The glorious part of our nation’s history is that all of the immigrants who came and all of those  who moved west into the interior of the continent did so with the intention of building new lives in a new place and that kind of hope and ambition is an irresistible force and it is still a part of who Americans are today.  That’s the history that I identify with and I celebrate it.  

But the ugly part of our history is that there were already people here with rich cultures and traditions and they were completely smothered by our Manifest Destiny.  Nothing can really replace the respect that those people were robbed of, or the opportunity for their cultures to choose their own direction, and that’s the history of the guy in the minivan and there’s a real national sadness around it.  

It’s hard for two peoples to get along on the same piece of real estate and that’s as true today as it was in the 1800s.  Think of the mess in Israel and Palestine.  Think of the conflict between the farmers and the nomadic Fulani in West Africa.  Think of that armrest you have to share with the person next to you on an airplane.  

There aren’t easy answers to these current conflicts and it is impossible to turn back the calendar and undo our previous offenses.  Even though I am not completely on-board with this whole carving-big-faces-in-mountains thing, I fully support the big dreams and the big plans for the Crazy Horse monument, and to the guy in the minivan, rock on, brother.

crazy horse distance chris congdon upstairs project.jpg
gentlemen, remove your hats

gentlemen, remove your hats

comfortable clothes

comfortable clothes