The Black Hills: A Complicated Legacy

The Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming pack a bifurcated legacy that captures the best and worst of the American experience. It’s hard not to think about the latter if you’re familiar with the region’s history, but it’s also not hard to enjoy yourself in the Black Hills thanks to the area’s bounty of eclectic and enjoyable attributes.

During a mid-summer visit when the region was in full tourist bloom, the region’s appeal was several-fold: the Black Hills with its craggy slabs of granite poking through––and towering over––Ponderosa pine forests; the free-range wildlife (including buffalo) and twisting, looping scenic drives of Custer State Park in South Dakota, perhaps one of the nation’s best state parks; the looming, monolithic and magnificent Devils Tower in Wyoming; and South Dakota cities of variegated appeal including Rapid City, Deadwood and Sturgis.

It’s a place where family vacation memories are made. Or, in the case of a solo traveler like myself, a distinctive landscape to bring the camera and hiking boots and just wander for a few days, as I did during an extended trip through the Nebraska panhandle, southwestern South Dakota and Wyoming. The Black Hills are steeped in the mystique of “How The West Was Won,” which also incorporates the darker side of the region’s history and, by proxy, the nation’s history regarding the government’s dealings with the native people of the Plains.

That legacy was a palpable undercurrent in my mind when I visited the Black Hills’ most famous landmark, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a place I always figured would be a “Is that all there is?” experience if I ever saw it in person, but ultimately reminded me somewhat of the Taj Mahal in India based on its visual impact, the excitement it generates among visitors and the technological prowess behind its construction.

Mount Rushmore proved to be a profound experience for several reasons: the magnificence of the sculptures and the intricacy of their carvings made with the brute force of dynamite and less intense yet still muscular jackhammers, before being polished with hand facers and bumper tools; the magnetism and star power it exudes; and its essence as a powerful national icon.

I first glimpsed Mount Rushmore from a high ridge along Iron Mountain Road, a scenic, winding two-lane drive that cuts through Custer State Park before exiting the park not far south of Mount Rushmore. The angle of the late-afternoon sun cast an ugly combination of shade and hazy contrast over the monument, yet seeing the distant faces of the four presidents for the first time gave me a jolt of excitement.

The next best glimpse of the monument came at the entrance to what is––for those driving north––the third and final tunnel on the Iron Mountain Road, the Doane Robinson tunnel, which frames the near-distant presidential carvings. There’s a small pull-off section to the right of the tunnel entrance, where you can park and take a tailor-made photo.

My late-day visit was strictly a photographic scouting mission to get the lay of the land for planned visits that night and very early the next morning. I left my camera in the car, and felt a little surge of adrenaline as I walked along the long outdoor entranceway framed by all 50 state flags that leads to the Grand View Terrace and its unobstructed view the four granite faces in the flesh. There was a mingling of different languages and nationalities. People whipped out their cameras and cell phones to take photographs. There was a general buzz of excitement.

I walked along the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail that leads down from the terrace and offers closer looks at the monument for a different perspective.

Intimate Experience
After dropping off my things and grabbing dinner in nearby Keystone, I went back to Mount Rushmore at dusk and caught the tail end of the evening lighting ceremony that’s an ode to democracy. When I arrived on the terrace, maybe a score-and-half of veterans stood on stage in the amphitheater below and announced their names and the branch of service they served in, all under the seeming appreciative eyes of George, Tom, Teddy and Abe.

After all of the vets announced themselves, the audience were asked to give a round of applause, which they did with isolated cries of “thank you” and “God bless America.” It was a very patriotic moment, and in my mind’s ear I heard Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”

By then it was 9:30 and folks filed out of the amphitheater and terrace. The monument was floodlit for another one-and-a-half-hours. I set up my tripod front-and-center in the terrace’s mezzanine section and tried to shoot the monument abstractly with long exposures and lens movement. Eventually, the people who stuck around after the show dwindled to only a few.

By 10:30, I shut off my camera and just took in the moment. I stared at the floodlit stone carvings. I looked up at the night sky and noticed the Big Dipper hung above the four presidential heads. During lulls when none of the remaining stragglers were speaking, I reveled in the silence. I enjoyed the pleasant, barely perceptible breeze on an otherwise still evening, and brushed off the occasional mosquito.

I appreciated being at that very spot at that very moment in time, knowing I’d most likely never be there again and that this was my time to enjoy this incredible place. And to do so in this way––late at night with hardly anyone else around, which provided an intimate experience at such a famous, popular and important place––was truly extraordinary and special.

At 11:00, the lights that illuminated the monument abruptly went black and it was time to go.

Complicated Legacy
While I got goosebumps from the patriotic event that evening, it co-existed with the thought this monument is considered a desecration by the Sioux Nation, to whom the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, was sacred ground where they communicated with the spirit world and performed rituals and ceremonies. To the Lakota, the largest and westernmost group of tribes in the Sioux confederation of tribes comprised of the three different dialects of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, the massive granite outcropping that became Mount Rushmore (named after a New York City lawyer, Charles E. Rushmore) was known as Six Grandfathers.

As Americans moved westward during the 19th century and conflicts arose with Plains Indians, the U.S. government in 1868 signed the Fort Laramie Treaty that, among other things, gave the Black Hills to the Sioux. The government thought the land was useless, and in a sense was throwing a bone to the natives. But when gold was discovered there and the gold rush of the mid-1870s was on, the government wanted to take back that bone.

Warrior chiefs, most prominently Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, resisted the intrusion upon their land. U.S. troops were sent to the region, setting off a chain of events that culminated in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, which was the Plains Indians’ high-water mark but ultimately sparked a resounding counterpunch by the U.S. government that cost the Sioux the Black Hills and forced all but the most resistant members onto reservations.

When the Sioux refused to ratify a new treaty that would’ve transferred the Black Hills to the U.S. government, Congress passed a law in 1877 that unilaterally abrogated the 1868 treaty and effectively took the land. But the Sioux cried foul well into the 20th century (and still cry foul today), claiming their land was taken without compensation. After lengthy legal wrangling they eventually had their day in court, and in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the land was wrongfully taken from them in violation of the Fifth Amendment and they were due compensation.

Compensation was affixed at about $106 million––$17.5 million (the estimated value of the land in 1877, which the Sioux say doesn’t account for the natural resources subsequently extracted from the Black Hills), plus 5% annual interest since that year. To this day, the Sioux have refused to take the money because they say the Black Hills aren’t for sale.

The money has been invested in government securities or other safe financial instruments to protect against loss, and in 35 years has grown to more than $1.3 billion. Some members of the Sioux nation say enough already and want the money distributed. The majority are holding fast to the argument that they want their land back.

Spreading $1.3 billion over roughly 100,000 Sioux in the U.S. comes to about $13,000 apiece, which doesn’t go very far. And once that’s spent, it’s gone––as is any hope of realizing their land claims in the Black Hills.

Sioux leaders and their lawyers say they’re realistic about their land claims, which don’t include Mount Rushmore or privately owned and residential land. Instead, they seek a combination of federally owned, unused land and joint management or rental agreements.

President Obama has expressed an interest in negotiating the Black Hills land claim with the Sioux, but first the various tribes involved need to agree on a proposal to bring to the table. That’s yet to happen.

Wounded Knee
At Mount Rushmore, there’s a bookstore in the sculptor’s studio where the monument’s architect, Gutzon Borglum, oversaw the design and construction of his masterpiece. One of the books for sale was “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.” Billed as an Indian history of the American West, the 1970 national bestseller is a gut-wrenching chronicle of the nation’s shameful, systematic destruction of native culture in its quest for Manifest Destiny. The final chapter chronicles the massacre by the Seventh U.S. Cavalry of more than 150 Lakota people (some estimates double that number) at Wounded Knee in southwestern South Dakota on December 29, 1890. The event marked the end of the Indian Wars and the end of the Native-American way of life that existed for centuries.

Wounded Knee is on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where the Oglala Lakota tribe lives, a place often cited for it’s sky-high unemployment, endemic poverty, rampant alcoholism and diabetes, few economic opportunities and little hope. On my way to the Badlands National Park east of Rapid City, I took a roughly 90-mile detour southeast to Wounded Knee.

The road flowed along wide-open grasslands, rolling hills and plateaus. There was some working ranches on the reservation, but not many signs of economic activity otherwise. The housing stock was mostly ranchers and mobile homes; some in better shape than others, with the biggest concentrations in the smattering of small enclaves such as Wounded Knee, Porcupine and Kyle.

At the parking lot that overlooks Wounded Knee Creek where the massacre occurred is a big red sign with white lettering that describes what happened there on that bitterly cold December day from long ago.

As I read the sign, a rotund young man with a round face, a skinhead haircut and a red cut-off shirt with the number 77 on it approached me. In a soft voice, he launched into what sounded like a well-rehearsed presentation about the reservation’s 89 percent unemployment rate, and how people need to make a living selling trinkets and offering guided tours of the massacre site. As he spoke, several Oglala women sold Indian jewelry and crafts from their cars in the parking lot, as well as from stands in the open space down behind the sign.

The man’s name was Chance High Hawk. He was 25 years old, unemployed with a high school education and, he said, with no good job prospects. When I asked why he didn’t attend Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, he said he couldn’t afford the gas money to make the 70-mile round-trip commute.

I agreed to pay for a tour of the site led by his father, John High Hawk, who was sitting in the car. John was 49 with a dark pony tail falling from beneath his baseball cap, and wore a t-shirt with an eye chart festooned across the front that spelled out a message about him being awesome. He spoke in mumbled tones that made it hard to clearly grasp his descriptions of the 1890 massacre, as well as the 71-day siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 that involved an occupation of the town by the American Indian Movement, the arrival of federal marshals and FBI agents, gunfights, a couple of deaths, and a whole lot of publicity that shed light on the plight of modern-day Native Americans.

As he spoke we walked across the road and up a hill to the cemetery containing the mass grave of the victims of the 1890 massacre. In the cemetery is a monument inscribed with the names of many of the victims. Atop the list is Big Foot, leader of the Minneconjou Lakota who had come to Pine Ridge seeking refuge. His band, along with many other Sioux tribes, participated in the Ghost Dance movement that swept the Great Plains in 1889. It was an almost messianic message that promised that performing the dance would hasten the elimination of white people from their land, resurrect dead ancestors, bring back the buffalo and return life to the way Indians knew it before Europeans arrived.

The U.S. government viewed this as a threat to its Indian policy and to peace, and called for the arrest of key Sioux leaders, including Sitting Bull and Big Foot. The former was killed during a botched arrest, and the latter fled after he heard of Sitting Bull’s murder. He and his band were heading to Pine Ridge to seek protection under Oglala chief Red Cloud, but they were intercepted by the Seventh Cavalry (a remade version of General Custer’s unit that got wiped out at Little Big Horn) and taken to Wounded Knee Creek.

The next morning, the atmosphere was tense after the army demanded the surrender of all Sioux weapons. During a scuffle with one particular Indian a shot was fired, and the ensuing melee turned into what’s generally considered a massacre (the U.S. government called it a battle), including the death of 25 soldiers––many of who, it is claimed, where killed by their own bullets and shrapnel.

As John High Hawk and I stood at the cemetery monument under a warm mid-July sun, we spoke about life on the reservation regarding education, alcoholism, job opportunities and the future for the Oglala. He spoke in clearer tones, and expressed his belief that the tribe needs younger leadership because the existing, older leaders aren’t open to new ideas, such as building a visitor center at the massacre site. He also said he thinks the Internet can open new opportunities for education and jobs, and can create hope for young people on the reservation.

At the end of the tour, I paid the High Hawks the suggested tour price of $30. I knew I could’ve negotiated a lower price, but it didn’t seem right. When I handed them the money, I said I hope they use it for gas money so Chance can go to college in Kyle.


Rocky Mountain Time

What can be said about Yellowstone National Park, the world’s oldest national park and probably the most iconic national park in the U.S., that hasn’t been said a zillion times already. Well, maybe this: It’s just okay.

Yes, the park packs incredible attributes from its gurgling, boiling, seismically active underbelly that creates its famous geysers and hot springs; to its wildlife that includes bison, grizzly bears, elk and wolves; to the massive Yellowstone Lake; to backcountry camping and hiking.

So, what’s not to like? Namely, it’s way too crowded in the summertime. Plus, other than places such as the other-worldly Grand Prismatic Spring or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (which, admittedly, I didn’t get a chance to see during my one-day visit but the pictures look impressive), the scenery is somewhat pedestrian by the standards of the American West.

I visited the park in mid-July at the height of the tourist season. Nobody twisted my arm to go then, and my very presence during that time contributed to the congestion I decry right now. But I decided to leverage company-paid airfare by taking a 10-day trek through the Mountain Time Zone following a business conference I attended in Denver, which included several days on the Nebraska panhandle and in the Black Hills/Badlands region of southwestern South Dakota, as well as a counter-clockwise circular tour of Wyoming.

It was a golden opportunity to visit Yellowstone, so I included it on my junket. Frankly, I feel like a crabby Negative Ned by giving Yellowstone a lukewarm review. I mean, not singing the praises of this venerable national park is akin to not singing the praises of Mom and apple pie. But with traffic advisory signs warning about expected traffic delays at Old Faithful, the hordes of people crowded around other signature sights, and the congested park roads that turned a 104-mile trip south from the Artists Paintpot section of Yellowstone to my night’s lodging in Moran, Wyo., into a three-hour slog . . . the sum total is that it detracted from the experience and took the “nature” out of nature.

As far as national park experiences go in the American West, I found a place such as Death Valley National Park to be a more profound, unrushed, uncrowded, and one-with-nature experience.

Bordering Yellowstone to the south is Grand Teton National Park, which delivered a greater dose of the rugged West than did Yellowstone. The Tetons’ jagged, craggy sheer rock faces and peaks form an impressive wall of geology . . . particularly since they seem to shoot up from the Earth in dramatic fashion without tree-covered foothills below them.

Grand Teton National Park had it’s share of visitors during my time there but not nearly to the extent of Yellowstone, which made for a more enjoyable experience.

Nebraska, on the other hand, lacks both dramatic peaks and dramatic crowds. And that was exactly what I was looking for. The state is centered on the continent and centered in its outlook, and the prairies, plateaus and small towns of the panhandle provide a vibe that’s both understated and powerful.

Heading north from Scottsbluff along Route 71, the highway cuts through wide-open American spaces and hardly any places under a big sky that seemed endless. Grasslands surround in all directions, occasionally playing host to cow herds––some herds brown-and white; others black-and-white––migrating through fields while munching on grass with their tails a-waggin.’

And why not? To them, it must seem like a charmed life with nothing to do but eat grass, drink water, hang out in the great outdoors, and let humans take care of their every need. If only they knew the fate that awaits them . . . such as winding up in a cabbage burger at Bluffs Bakery in Scottsbluff.

Bluffs is one of those places that Trip Advisor can make famous, which is how I wound up stopping there for a quick lunch. I rarely eat meat, but had to make an exception to try this local delicacy. Did it live up the hype?

Cabbage burgers at Bluffs consist of beef, cabbage, white bun, salt and pepper. They’re cooked in a copper pot ahead of time, put in the frig, and then reheated in a microwave. The cabbage keeps them moist, and all the ingredients blended together to where nothing stands out. That said, my burger was moist and tasty, in an subtle way.

Scottsbluff is the gateway to the Scotts Bluff National Monument that served as a landmark for pioneers in Conestoga wagons trekking along the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails. A destination for foodies, Scottsbluff is not. But it is home to a gem in the rough when it comes to restaurants––the Emporium.

My meal at Emporium was outstanding . . . one of the two best meals on my entire trip. The bruschetta (artichokes, red peppers, kalamata olives) was the best I ever had. The shrimp orecchiette (wild Mexican white shrimp, pasta, smoked corn and Spanish chorizo in roasted red pepper sauce) was memorable. The wheatless chocolate torte served with one scoop each of vanilla and coffee ice cream was fantastic. The restaurant’s soundtrack of refined American Songbook-type music from the likes of Frank Sinatra and Norah Jones set the proper mood.

My waiter told me this place is anachronistic for Scottsbluff, a town he described as having meat-and-potatoes tastes where locals prefer steak joints and sports bars. Most of the restaurant’s clientele, he said, were higher-paid local professionals and tourists like me who’ve read the good reviews on Trip Advisor and the like.

Please patronize Emporium if you ever get to Scottsbluff . . . it deserves all of the love it can get.

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