Since 1948 in lands now called the state of South Dakota, a European sculptor, Korzcak Ziolkowski, and his heirs have been blowing up a mountain in the Paha Sapa in the name of the 19th-century Oglala Sioux war leader Crazy Horse. And, one assumes, in the name of art.
This monstrosity is 20 twenty miles from where I live. The truth is I've lived in the Hills two or three times during my past lives. I keep moving away. And I keep coming back. This time I've bought a house in the Hills so I presume I mean this time to stay.
The Crazy Horse Mountain Sculpture, I've come to believe, is emblematic of what's so wrong about this place. And it may even exemplify the reason for my seemingly unaccountable ambiguity concerning my life here in the homelands.
Human repositories such as the Guggenheim or the Museum of Modern Art in New York seem not to be enough for artists like Ziolkowski. Often, driven by hubris, they claim God's repositories as well, and they are notorious for coming into the sacred lands of the Lakota to express their strange ways.
There are many white-man progenitors for such arrogance in this country but around here Mount Rushmore is the epitome. It opens up what Indians around here call "the desecration tour." I once wrote a short poem about that monument which some say represents democracy, and my poem appeared in an obscure little chapbook called Seek The House of Relatives published in 1983 by Blue Cloud Quarterly:
- Owls hang in the night air
between the visages
of Washington, Lincoln,
The Rough Rider; and Jefferson;
and coyotes mourn the theft
of sacred ground.
A Cenotaph becomes
the tourist temple
of the profane.
I haven't been able to write poems about the Crazy Horse sculpture, and I haven't been able to say why. The first thing to know about the rock carving, though, is that it is ugly and absurd and obscene to anyone who knows history because to know history is to know that the lands were stolen by the United States of America from the First Nation people of Crazy Horse, and a genocidal holocaust of which the people called the Sioux are bare survivors.
"We are all Greeks," said the English poet Shelley once about art, and today the relatives of those who stole the land from the Oyate are saying, "We are all Indians" or "Indian is a state of mind," and there is supposed to he something comforting about that. Around here you see white men dressed in Indian buckskins, and you see white women in braids and beads, and they are all yearning for that vision about which Shelley spoke. In some odd contradiction, blowing up a sacred mountain in the name of Indians is what the Crazy Horse sculpture talks to them about. Unfortunately, Indians have heard it all many times in the last few centuries. Remember when they said that taking us away from our reli- gions and languages through law and litigation would make us human?
One supposes that Shelley was ??????? when he made his statement, and it's hard to know what he had in mind that might be useful to us Indians. This much we know: All art and all creativity is based upon the observation of some rules. And the true artist knows how to depart from those rules meaningfully. For the Indigenous peoples of this land, this has always been the case. We know the rules, and we learn how to depart from them, and that is what we call art. Innovation and originality have never been discouraged, but tradition is at the heart of it always. For the Sioux Oyate it is not revolution nor emulation that matters, it is, instead, culture and language and history. The rules that Crazy Horse knew told him that the land and the mountains were inviolate and he and his people had a right to imagine themselves.
The way I see it, Crazy Horse has been a perfect victim for exploitation by whites. He was killed by them [missing line] any other leader among our people. During his lifetime he allowed no photographic likenesses of him to be taken, no paintings, no drawings. He refused to go to Washington, D. C. Neither did he, despite claims to the contrary, have any friends among the invading whites. Of all the Indians throughout history, he has, therefore, become their obsession. He has become a steak house in California and his name is used profanely to sell everything from beer to poetry magazines and third-rate novels. And now they blow up a mountain to invent his image in the stone that he knew as sacred. They do it because they must possess what they can not. It is why our language has always called them "fat takers."
Many artists have become hired guns for one cause or another. Money. Fame. Many Indians have sung the Christian Bible songs and danced for the tourists, sometimes for the same reasons. These are the realities of human life. Creative movements come and go, and inspiration derives from many sources.
But the one distinguishing feature of modern white-man-inspired art as it comes face to face with Indians is to reduce the role of art to absurdity. When that happens, social bankruptcy and despair. modern materialism and mass media is all that is left.
There is nothing new about Europeans coming into the North American continent and calling it their own. There is nothing new either, about artists telling us they are in tune with the times and that their art presents their own Age. Ziolkowski consciously set out to look at the Indian world through the temptations of his own ruined society. He obliterates the sacred, and his work delights his fellows, and they say to him: "If you build it, they will come ... if you build it, they will come." They are, I'm sad to say, right about that.
Author's Note: There is much irony in this story which is told here only briefly. While the folks at Crazy Horse Mountain make much of getting "permission" from an Indian named Standing Bear for this project, world events may have had more of an impact than Indian thinking on the subject had. Between 1945 and 1949 the United States was getting ready to try the Nazis at Nuremberg Germany. These trials went ahead on the theory that the Nazis were men who "implemented policies which led to death, disease I and starvation" (William Manchester, The Arms of Krupp, Bantam, 1968), the same kinds of policies which led to "illegal appropriation" (theft?) of Sioux lands and the death of thousands of Sioux from starvation during this century.
America was forced by public controversy to admit to the barbaric nature of its Indian policy. Congress even went so far as to pass the Indian Claims Commission Act in 1946 to hear all tribal "grievances" concerning land claims. Unfortunately, that act said stolen lands could not be returned (a continuing stance); they could only he paid for. Since 1980 the United Sioux have refused to accept the judgment moneys and continue to press for land reform. This is the longest standing land claim in the history of U.S/Indian relations. (Wicazo Sa Review, Spring 1988, Vol. IV, No. 1)
There are a few missing words in this text since the copy used had been cut off at the bottom of the page. This will be repaired soon.
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Reprinted with permission from Indian Country Today Magazine, Week of Nov. 18-25, 1996.