A Trip To The Crazy Horse Memorial Is A Lesson In Our Brutal History (And Capacity To Heal)

Zach Johnston

South Dakota is an objectively beautiful corner of America. The seas of green grass that undulate in the wind, the ancient towers of the Black Hills, and the mysterious colors of the Badlands all add up to something truly special. Yet South Dakota — like so many significant slices of our nation — is not all beauty without consequence. It contains multitudes, many of them painful. A tragic chapter of American history and the still reverberating aftereffects of that chapter are tucked away on Indigenous lands like the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. For many travelers, this painful legacy is reason enough to avoid the area; instead, this should be part of the motivation to visit.

It’s seldom said outright, but sometimes travel isn’t about blissed out beaches and Instagram dreams. Sometimes it’s about confronting a harrowing reality that’s all too easy to ignore. That’s what makes travel of the boundary-pushing variety so mind-expanding for poets and vagabonds across history. It’s not the food or the architecture that blow our minds, it’s the expansion of our own empathy.

This is why you need to go to South Dakota. Why you need to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial. Why you need to witness how two disparate cultures have come together to heal, even as the massive rift between America’s Indigenous population and colonialist aggressors continues to widen. The white and Indigenous families working together at Crazy Horse are creating a bridge between communities, empathy between onetime enemies, and a large-scale testament to how great America can be when we reach out to each other. The memorial, which deserves to be every bit iconic as those other faces carved into rock in the state, stands as a beckon of hope. A hope that history will be told. A hope that justice may one day be served. And a hope that life on the Pine Ridge — and a too long list of other Indian Reservations — will one day get better.

Life on the Rez

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The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is still officially designated as Prisoner of War Camp #344, according to the US Government. Life expectancy is lower than Iraq, Sudan, and Yemen. Suicide rates are the highest in America, with children as young as 12 electing to end their lives. Alcoholism and drug abuse are the highest in the country. Sexual abuse is rampant — most of it is perpetrated by non-Natives. 97 percent of the people on Pine Ridge live below the poverty line and up to 95 percent are unemployed, depending on the season. Being an “Indian” on the Pine Ridge — and in America in general — also means you’re the most likely to die at the hands of the police.

Traversing the Pine Ridge lays all of this bare. Life feels arrested. The very real suffering of Americans stops being an abstract state in the New York Times or on a PBS documentary. And finding “the why” of this prolonged pain doesn’t require a particularly lengthy excavation. A trip to the Oglala College Historical Center lays out the history of the Lakota’s experience with the US government in agonizing detail.

The Lakota of South Dakota have spent the better part of the last 200 years fighting for religious and cultural freedom, their sacred lands, and what was promised them in the treaties signed with the United States. They’re fighting daily for the security, housing, food, education, and health care promised to them in treaties with the United States. Many are still fighting to be recognized by a conquering government. And, the Lakota are still fighting to get back the Black Hills — a place of deep sanctity — that was ripped from them illegally and then scarred with the faces of the perpetrators of their demise.

Why are the Black Hills so important?

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For at least eleven millennia, the mountainous area in the Southwest quadrant of the state has served as a holy land to the people of the Great Plains. The Lakota secured the land in the Treaty of Fort Laramie, in 1868. That treaty guaranteed all of present-day South Dakota, west of the Missouri River, to the tribes forever.