Of all the things we did in South Dakota, the one that moved me the most was our visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial. This monument has been under construction since 1948 and is nowhere near done. But it has been privately funded with absolutely no governmental help. At more than 560 feet high, this monument of the Oglala Lakota warrior is massive.
I doubt that it will be completed in my lifetime but it is a marvel to see, even in its unfinished state. There’s a viewing area from the visitors’ center pavilion or you can take a bus to the top for a closer look around.
We arrived late in the day after hiking the Badlands and visiting Mt. Rushmore. In other words, we were hot, dirty and tired. The visitors’ center has a good museum filled with artifacts and artwork related to the Lakota people. An area devoted to Polish sculptor and memorial designer Korczak Ziolkowski includes sculptures, furniture and even a massive mirror once owned by Marie Antionette. This was an odd but intriguing thing to find amidst the Native American pieces.
There’s an exhibit about the American Bison, a collection of tribal flags, ceremonial clothes, a teepee and a host of other things. Honestly, we just walked through this area and didn’t stop to study much. Along with lots of things to look at but not touch, there were some hands on exhibits for the kiddos too. Under normal circumstances, we would’ve dwelled here but we were tired.
All of this was great and seeing the memorial was super too. But what made this visit truly special was a talk and demonstration by a Lakota family.
The talk was led by a Lakota husband and wife. The two grew up on different reservations. Both came from families that encouraged them to leave for college and to better themselves. They met at school and today they travel the world sharing the story and traditions of their people.
They told their story in a straightforward, heart warming and thought provoking manner that I found captivating. The husband sang and played a drum while the wife and two of their young daughters demonstrated traditional Lakota dance. She talked about their dresses, pow wows and what it all means.
But what stunned me was her mention of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. I paid attention in history class and minored in history at college and can honestly say that this is something I never knew about. It was passed to protect and preserve the religious rights and cultural practices of American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts and Native Hawaiians.
And why was this needed?
It was needed because we long had prohibited native peoples from practicing their faith.
The dances they performed for us were illegal within my lifetime. Read that again. In the United States of America, it was long prohibited for native people to practice their faith.
As part of our government’s suppression of traditional indigenous religions, most ceremonial ways were banned for over 80 years by a series of federal laws. We actively persecuted and prosecuted these people for the practice of their faith for decades.
One thing I did know is that we forcibly removed Native American children from their families and sent them to residential schools where Native children were taught Christianity and attempts were made to mainstream these kids into white culture. This also went on through the seventies.
I never cease to be amazed at how appallingly we treat people who are different. While I was aware of the atrocities committed against native peoples, it never occurred to me that it extended to their faith and went on for so long.
Their talk was thought provoking and I loved their costumes and dances. The littlest girl was about three and was the best behaved little toddler I’ve ever seen. Her dad provided the music – a Lakota version of “Old McDonald” and they were adorable together.
It gave me hope and made me smile to think that she will grow up in a world where she can dance freely and worship out loud. And I hope that she follows in the footsteps of her parents, sharing proudly the stories and traditions of her people while educating tourists like me about some of the stories that we don’t teach in history class.
Of all the things we saw and did during this journey, this was the thing that has altered my worldview the most. Anyone who screams religious persecution because of the American Separation of Church and State need only to be directed to the Religious Freedom Act of 1978 to know what real persecution looks like.
And that’s the most controversial statement you’ll ever hear me make on this blog.
The Crazy Horse campus includes a restaurant and one of the nicest gift shops I’ve ever seen at at a tourist attraction. I bought a handmade Lakota doll for my travel tree but there’s a great mix of traditional gift shop t-shirt kind of stuff along with some fine pieces of art and jewelry.
I can’t promise that your experience at Crazy Horse will be as rewarding as mine but I certainly hope so. You can read books and view things in museums but there’s no substitute for listening to a person tell their own story.
Whether you’re planning a trip or just an armchair traveler, the Crazy Horse Memorial website is great so go check it out!