Growing up near the Black Hills of South Dakota, my family had a cleaning lady who was a Native American. She was a wizen, older woman who sometimes showed up and sometimes did not. She may have been coming to pay off a debt to my father, a lawyer, who often represented Native American clients against charges of drunkenness, theft or disorderly conduct. When they could not afford to pay him for his services, they would settle their debts “in kind” and our home filled with tomahawks, ghost shirts and peace pipes. Many a night our dinner was simple–bills piled up in our mailbox as artifacts amassed in our living room. My childhood cast Native Americans in an unflattering light just as our textbooks then painted a hugely biased version of history.
Years and miles since then, I began reading the history of Native Americans, learning that I had earlier encountered symptoms of a scourge so deep as must be denied, allowing the American narrative to survive unsullied.
The critical pivot point for me was reading Charles C. Mann’s books, 1491 and 1493, recommended to me by Lincoln Mudd, a professor at Montgomery College and a Smithsonian Fellow that year. The act of which birthed my Native American series:
In the Sioux Treaty of 1868, the United States government granted several tribes rights to the Black Hills of South Dakota as part of the Great Sioux Reservation. Six years later, General George A. Custer led an expedition through the Black Hills during which miners discovered gold. Within four years, the United States had confiscated the Black Hills, breaking the treaty and what little trust existed. Rights to these lands continue in dispute today.
By the early 1920’s, a South Dakota state historian hoping to encourage tourism engaged the interest of Gutzon Borglum in carving a monument from one of the hills in this range. Borglum chose Mt. Rushmore, so fittingly named for an attorney who assessed mining claims in the 1880’s. To commemorate our nation’s first 150 years and to draw vacationers on a national scale, Borglum carved four Presidents’ likenesses in this hard granite. He “…built into, cut into, the crust of this earth so that those records would have to melt or by wind be worn to dust before the record…could, as Lincoln said, ‘perish from the earth.’”
I created Khe Sapa, (Lakota for Black Hills) to transform the known monument into a more just commemoration of Native American leaders. Currently realized as a rubber mold, it is to be cast in ice, that its temporal existence can be as fleeting as Mt. Rushmore’s granite countenances are permanent.