Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What Defines "The Sacred?"


I composed this brief paper for a Gettysburg class in 2008. In it, I draw comparisons between the American landmarks of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills, the Gettysburg Battlefield, and other historical sites. I'd like to pay homage to my professor, Dr. Brian Black, who's studies first made me ponder such questions of historical memory and sacredness. In a quest I am still investigating, I delve into what makes Gettysburg (and Rushmore) special to we history buffs. Furthermore, why do others see them as divisive objects of debate or conjecture? The answers to these questions can be as complicated as the history itself.

The Black Hills of the American West have long been a contested parcel of territory throughout the history of the United States. In the 1870s, a battle was waged between the prospects of gold and the notions of ancient spirituality. In the modern era, a war of words and ideals is being waged in the Black Hills, a conflict often as controversial as the one waged over a century ago. The hills are the home of Mount Rushmore, one of the most poignant images of American identity. Yet to some, this edifice has come to represent humiliation, defeat, and conquest.

Many claim that the four presidential faces look down from a place where they should not be – sacred Native American land. In a variety of ways, it stands a trophy over the defeated Lakota Sioux that once called the hills their home. Just as Federal monuments at Gettysburg far outnumber Confederate memorials, there seems to be a story that is only partially being told.

In addition to the alteration of memory, there has been an ever-increasing amount of commercialization throughout the American West. As environmental historian Donald Worster has stated, “Today’s Hills, with all their billboards, national parks and forests, gas stations, and curio shops, can symbolize their persistent status as victims of the westward movement.” Who could not say the same of Gettysburg and other American battlefields, where one can discover an abundant collection of souvenir shops and tourist stops retailing Robert E. Lee shot glasses?

The debate over the appropriateness of Mount Rushmore continues to this day. How did Native Americans feel when Cary Grant dangled from George Washington’s nose in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest? How painful might it have been when Gutzon Borglum carved four presidents into their sacred space, the Lakota equivalent of the Vatican or Jersusalem? John Lame Deer, an activist involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM), occupied the monument in the early 1970s out of protest. He placed a staff atop the monument proclaiming it, “shall remain dirty until the treaties concerning the Black Hills are fulfilled." According to one Indian Heritage website:

"The Sioux see Mount Rushmore as a desecration of a beautiful, sacred mountain, an insult so grotesque that it is almost unspeakable. The late medicine man Lame Deer once said that the monument 'fits into our sacred Black Hills like a red-hot iron poker into somebody's eye... They could just as well have carved this mountain into a huge cavalry boot standing on a dead Indian.'"

In a form of retaliation toward Rushmore and to pay homage to their own leader, the Sioux commissioned a Rushmore-like statue of Chief Crazy Horse just miles away from the four presidents. (The Crazy Horse carving will be three times larger than Rushmore upon it's completion.) The contested landscape largely ceases to be conflicted as two separate yet connected narratives are at last interpreted with a form of equality. Coincidentally, the first Native American superintendent of a National Park now oversees Mount Rushmore. Gerard Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa, sees Rushmore as a new potential symbol of unification, not just division. He stated in one interview, “A lot of Indian people look at Mount Rushmore as a symbol of what white people did to this country when they arrived—took the land from the Indians and desecrated it,” Baker says. “I’m not going to concentrate on that. But there is a huge need for Anglo-Americans to understand the Black Hills before the arrival of the white men. We need to talk about the first 150 years of America and what that means.”

A similar situation of highly symbolic and contested "unification" arose out of Richmond, Virginia at a completely different historical site. When a statue of Abraham Lincoln and his son, Tad, was dedicated at the former Confederate Tredegar Ironworks, there were open protests by southern heritage organizations, some of which compared the monument to placing a statue of Hitler in Paris. In another form of retaliation or attempt at balance, the Sons of Confederate Veterans commissioned a similar statue of President Jefferson Davis and his sons. Although many argue the statue is not in retaliation of the bronze Lincoln, one never knows. Their efforts in the placement of this memorial failed, however. Nevertheless, both the Crazy Horse and Davis statues, reveal how our many cultural and political wounds often heal, but very slowly.

Such “sacred landscapes” frequently have different meanings for different people. The divisive and broad sagas of the Civil War and the American West are only two instances displaying how history shapes our landscapes and diversifies our modern culture.

Lincoln statue in Richmond, VA.

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