Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Great Pause Week 17: Toppling Mount Rushmore

President Cobblepot and his handlers have such an uncanny knack for finding tripwires they could, after the Fall elections, enter successful careers as mine detectors in former war zones. Not merely content to have awakened international support for Black Lives Matter and restored kneeling to popular sporting events, they enlarged the population of aggrieved to include the justice system-abused and Covid-martyred masses of Native Americans, and, by extension, all the indigenous peoples of the world.

There he stood in his pride and glory, Cobblepot at Rushmore for Independence Day, grinning with three scalper, slaver, rapist and jingoist former presidents and a murdered emancipator, telling his faithful — packed shoulder to shoulder in chairs zip-tied together — that protesters are trying to “end America” by engaging in a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” Chug-a-lug.

He was in the Pahá Sápa (Cheyenne: Moʼȯhta-voʼhonáaeva; Hidatsa: awaxaawi shiibisha); the heart of the Earth Mother. He carried neither pipe nor skin, nor was he humble in mien. 

After last week’s post here caused some readers to wonder just how large a chain might be required to topple the Washington Monument (as big as the cross-river chain at West Point, perhaps?), and how many protesters it might take to pull it, we began to consider what kind of demolition might erase four faces from a South Dakota mountain’s skyline.

The oldest mountain range in North America is not the Appalachians. Not the Sierra Nevada. Not the Tetons. It’s the Black Hills. Paha Sapa is relatively small as mountain ranges go — 125 miles (201 km) by 65 miles (105 km). Its stratigraphy is laid out like a dartboard, with an oval dome in the bullseye and rings of different rock types dipping away from the center. The core dome rises 7,244 feet (2,208 m) at Black Elk Peak, with various rock outcrops ranging from 1.8 billion years old near the center to 2.8 billion years old at Bear Mountain. Some high elevations are covered by eroding limestone bearing dinosaur fossils, 20-million-year-old camel bones, and shark’s teeth. Some of the trout stream beds are 10,000 years or younger, formed by glacial melt after the last Ice Age.

Long before the Lakota, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas and Kiowa-Apaches were pushed westward in the late 18th century by colonial expansion in the East and knock-on migrations of indigenous nations out of the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes, the ultimate masters of Plains warfare, the Sioux, had annually pilgrimaged to the Black Hills like Muslims to Mecca, Jews to the Wailing Wall and Christians to the Vatican for Easter. Amy Corbin writes in her report on the Black Hills for the Sacred Lands Film Project that, “four thousand archaeological sites spanning 12,000 years attest to a long relationship with native people.”

To the Sioux it was too sacred to inhabit. It was the womb of the Earth. It was where the original inhabitants had weathered the last Ice Age, and possibly others before it, living in hundreds of large caves within the mountains. It was where, according to the ancestors, the original people of Earth descended from the spirits of the sky — the star people. This is where in July and August every year hundreds of falling stars each hour link the dual universes of star people riding Comet Swift-Tuttle and humans on the perpendicular orbit of Earth. Each of our peoples, going around the same star, occupy analogous and sometimes interchangeable roles — like Bizarro World in Superman Comics (Htrae, which is “Earth” spelled backwards). We are probably the Bizarro World in this analogy, but the more relevant point is that the Lakota see, in the sacred landscape of the Black Hills, corresponding constellations that join us to the heavens. 

As Leonard Little Finger relates for Cultural Survival Quarterly: 

My grandfather and I are from a sub-band of the Teton, a member of the Nation of the Seven Council Fires. We are called the Mniconjou, or People Who Plant Near the Water. In the 1500s, one of our villages was the location of present day Rapid City along the streams of Mniluzahan Creek, or Rapid Creek, which is today’s northern gateway to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Our family has had a spiritual relationship with this special land for over 500 years.
The Black Hills were recognized as the Black Hills because of the darkness from the distance. The term also referred to a container of meat; in those days people used a box made out of dried buffalo hide to carry spiritual tools, like the sacred pipe, or the various things that were used in prayers or to carry food. That’s the term that was used for the Black Hills: they were a container for our spiritual need as well as our needs of food and water, whatever it is that allows survival.

The story of broken treaties should by now be a familiar one for students of US history. Writing for The National Geographic in 2012, Alexandra Fuller refreshes our memory this way:

Fort Laramie Treaty
The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed the Sioux possession of the hills, but after gold was discovered there in 1874, prospectors swarmed in, and the U.S. government quickly seized the land. The Sioux refused to accept the legitimacy of the seizure and fought the takeover for more than a century. On June 30, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an award of $17.5 million for the value of the land in 1877, along with 103 years’ worth of interest, together totaling $106 million [the amount now exceeds $1.3 billion-ab]. But the Sioux rejected the payment, insisting that the Black Hills would never be for sale.
And then White Plume asked me to consider the seemingly calculated insult of Mount Rushmore. “The leaders of the people who have broken every treaty with my people have their faces carved into our most holy place. What is the equivalent? Do you have an equivalent?” I could offer none. 

But we do have an equivalent response after the toppling of statues to Confederate war heroes. We could carve out the faces the way you remove that tattooed heart with the name of your ex-boyfriend who ran off with your best friend and your favorite party dress. With dynamite.

Little Finger concludes:

The desecration of the Black Hills is indicative of the violation of the sacredness of who we are as a people. The insides of Grandmother Earth are being taken; the atmosphere, the area that’s there to protect us and all things is being destroyed. Earth is our grandmother, as animate as we all are, because she provides us with all of our needs to live. From the time of birth until now I look at that relationship as sacred. When our life ends here on Grandmother Earth, we become as one. This sacredness means that we walk on our ancestors. As Indigenous Peoples we are guided by the spiritualism of greater powers than we humans. We don’t seek equality, we seek justice. This is who we are, and this is where we come from.

There is a phenomenon at play in the social fabric of the world now, brought upon us by the stress of endured quarantine from a nasty, insidious, ubiquitous virus. Many would choose to see this as crisis but I prefer it as opportunity. We are being schooled in the deficiencies of human neurobiology. As apes swinging between trees we could not consider too many branches ahead lest we we lose sight of that required grip immediately next. We have a finely honed discount factor, borne of many encounters with hard ground, and perhaps the lions and tigers waiting there for just such an error of short-term judgment.

But threats like coronavirus force us to extend our horizons by at least a few more chess moves. If it takes from two to twenty-four days for symptoms of Covid to appear after inhaling the CoV-2 virus, we can’t expect to sit in zip-tied chairs and emerge unscathed, even if after a week or more it seems like we just did. Similarly, we cannot avoid looking into the latest pig virus on the oft chance it will not jump to humans. We cannot avoid stockpiling more PPE, or even to begin developing vaccines to it, on that remote prospect. Our horizons have to reach out to more distant branches. They have to do that earlier than we did this time.

The same applies to other threats we have discounted as somehow too distant or vague. The nuclear plant 200 miles from your home melting down and raining fallout into your neighborhood; Siberian wildfires melting so much permafrost that coasts move inland by miles centuries earlier than expected; superstorms borne of your air-conditioner’s refrigerant fluids cascading tornadoes through the Midwest and flooding-out your principal food supply.

Returning the Black Hills to the first nations would do more than tick the anti-racism box. Santee Sioux scholar John LaVelle has proposed a Greater Black Hills National Wildlife Protected Area for the Northern Plains region that could eventually encompass the 58 million acres (23 MHa, or 89,000 square miles, a larger land area than that of 111 present-day countries) ceded in perpetuity to the Sioux by the Ft Laramie Treaty of 1868. This area is of sufficient dimension, if ecologically restored, to recover and repopulate the great North American mid-continental grassland ecosystem managed by wolves, bison, and prairie dogs sequestering vast tons of carbon taken directly from the atmosphere each year and layered into meter-deep topsoil by prairie fire, dung beetles, roots and fungi.

When innovations come along that change the structure of society there is a period of rejection, followed by grudging acceptance, followed by accelerated growth, and then a plateau of accepted normalcy. Children born after the innovation had firmly rooted can barely fathom what it must have been like before then.

Monuments like Mount Rushmore seem to inhabit a safe space of normalcy and acceptance. Annual biker rallies, Harley t-shirts, souvenir mugs. And then, suddenly, the paradigm shifts. Racism is no longer cool. Stomping on indigenous culture is not something to be tolerated. And so, in the blink of an eye, a culture changes. 

For our climate predicament, our biodiversity cataclysm, our population fecundity dilemma, this is a very hopeful and necessary moment. A Great Reset is in the wings. Witness this and tell your grandchildren. You were there at the moment of change. It was the very last chance you were given, and your generation took it.

It starts by giving back the Paha Sapa.


Fifteen issues of Adventure Comics from writer Jerry Siegel and artist John Forte, running from issue #285–299 (June 1961–Aug. 1962).

Corbin, Amy. “History of the Conflict.” Sacred Land Film Project: Black Hills. N.p., 01

LaVelle, John, Rescuing Paha Sapa: Achieving Environmental Justice by Restoring the Great Grasslands and Returning the Sacred Black Hills to the Great Sioux Nation, P., 5 Great Plains Nat. Resources J. 40 (2001)

Little Finger, Leonard, We Walk on Our Ancestors: The Sacredness of the Black Hills, Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, March 2014. — Leonard Little Finger is a respected Lakota elder and the founder-director of Sacred Hoop School, a Lakota language school in Ogalala, South Dakota:

Fuller, Alexandra. In the Shadow of Wounded Knee, The National Geographic, Aug. 2012. 03 Nov. 2012. 

Sundstrom, Linea. Mirror of Heaven: Cross-Cultural Transference of the Sacred Geography of the Black Hills, World Archaeology Sacred Geography 28.2 (Oct 1996): 177–189. JSTOR. Web. 01 Nov. 2012.

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