New Podcast Episode: The Black Hills – Mt Rushmore, Black Elk Peak, and Crazy Horse Memorial

The Disneyfied, Las-Vegased Main Street of Deadwood.

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Journal: Horsethief Campground North, Black Hills National Forest, Saturday evening, July 22nd, 2017

It’s a little before 10 pm, the last vestige of the sun’s light has left the sky. The starlight is somewhat obscured by the slight haze and the ambient light from this bustling, heavily populated campground. The children’s shouting and crying are finally quieting down but the teens and adults are still chatting, and some are partying. I chose this site, one, because it was available (it was the last one) and two, because of its proximity to the hike I have planned for early tomorrow, I’ll tell you about that after it happens. My tent is pitched for the night, my clothes are ready for the morning. I’ll be glad when the night is over and I can leave this campsite. … Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories

Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Photo: January 2017 by Amy Cools

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my seventh philosophical-historical adventure: an almost three-week road trip through the Great Plains and on to Illinois. I’ll fly from Chicago to Scotland on August 9th: I’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in the history of ideas at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. In the meantime, I’m overjoyed to have this window of time to explore parts of my country which I’ve never seen, and to learn as much as I can along the way…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in Search of Crazy Horse

Portrait of Crazy Horse, Tasunke Witko in Lakota, fresco on the interior wall of Wounded Knee museum, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

Fort Robinson, Nebraska, July 26th, 2017

I wake up at Fort Robinson, just a little ways east of the village of Harrison in northwest Nebraska. I drove here last night from Wounded Knee, which takes about one hour and forty-five minutes. I camped out in the backseat of the car, where I continue to keep my sleeping bag, camp pad, and coats ready to make a cozy nest, in a parking lot behind one of the museum’s lodges. It’s a soft pinkish-blue morning, a little warm with a cool breeze blowing. It rained a little last night and everything feels fresh and clean, except me. I’ll soon find a place to wash my face, brush my teeth, and change into clean clothes. But right now, all I want to do is stretch my legs, drink my little thermos of coffee, and go out exploring in this calm and lovely early summer morning.

I drive the car around the fort, getting a good look at the layout and buildings until I see what I seek: a historical marker near apparent early fort buildings from the eighteenth century. I park. The grounds are lovely and well-maintained, and so are the buildings, from these rough log structures to the tidy clapboard ones painted white and green to the large lodges, halls, and offices of brick, adobe, and stone. This fort was in use more or less constantly, from its founding as Camp Robinson in 1874 as a military security outpost for the second Red Cloud Agency, to its reassignment as a training ground and quartermaster remount depot, breeding, training, and caring for up to 12,000 mules and horses at any given time prior to and for the duration of World War II. It was the regimental headquarters for the two African American black regiments in the then-segregated U.S. Army, first the Ninth Cavalry, then the Tenth, from 1887 to 1907. From 1885 to 1916, in fact, most of the troops stationed here were black.

Buffalo Soldiers historical monument at Fort Robinson, Nebraska

Crazy Horse was among the most revered war leaders of the Oglala Lakota and their allies in the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877. He had long been successful at resisting white settlers’ and the U.S. Army’s attempts to force him onto a reservation or to adopt their ways. He was one of the bold young warriors who led a contingent of soldiers into an ambush near Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. This 1866 engagement, called the Fight of the Hundred in the Hand by the Lakota and the Fetterman Fight by the United States, was the worst defeat of the U.S. Army by Native Americans until the Battle of the Little Bighorn ten years later. 81 U.S. troops from Fort Phil Kearny and a few civilians lost their lives here. This battle was the culmination of a series of skirmishes and raids on unwelcome white settlers and forts such as this one set up to protect them.

Fort Robinson historical sign and reconstructed buildings from the 1870’s

For a long time previously, white and Native American people traded with one another and enjoyed mostly good relations on the Great Plains. However, settlers began flooding in in ever great numbers, disrupting buffalo migrations, depleting game, clearing timber, and putting up fences. At a certain point, the white presence came to be seen as a menace to the way of life that Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and those who followed them believed was divinely and wisely arranged. Why resort to grubbing in the soil and putting up fences when Wakan Tanka, the Creator or Great Spirit, had given the people such rich herds of game, which, together with the rich stands of timber and plentiful flowing water, provided all the nourishment, clothing, and shelter one could need, on vast swaths of beautiful land where the people could roam as freely as the animals? The Bozeman Trail, which cut across this good land, was a major route for these white settlers and for a time, they passed through it mostly unmolested. But when the trickle became a flood, the situation changed from a matter of hospitality and mutual benefit to one of survival. Would any reasonable person continue to welcome guests once they’ve begun to ransack their home, raid their fridge, take their most prized possessions to sell, and block their passage from room to room?

Reconstruction of the old guardhouse with marker for Crazy Horse’s death, Fort Robinson

Crazy Horse was having none of it. Like Sitting Bull, he distrusted white people and disdained their way of life. It seemed stunted to him, caged, lacking soul and nobility. Unlike Sitting Bull, he made no concessions to white ways until forced to do so for the survival of his band; even then, he did the absolute minimum necessary. We don’t know what he looked like since he refused to have his picture taken; he was unimpressed with most white-made goods and would accept no bribes; he absolutely refused to visit Washington, D.C. as his fellow great chiefs had done because, as he observed, the experience changed them. They were dazzled and bewitched by what they saw, so they lost their independent spirit, their sense of who they were.

Red Cloud at Red Cloud Agency near Fort Robinson

Perhaps this touched a nerve: Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, two chiefs who had once been among the greatest warrior defenders of the Lakota ways but who had adopted many white ways, grew jealous of the power and influence Crazy Horse enjoyed because of his steadfast independence. They remained great leaders of their people and had come to believe that the best way to preserve the lives of their people while preserving as much of their culture as they could was to work with the U.S. government. Nevertheless, it was a hard decision to make, and I’m sure they did so with a great degree of ambivalence. So, Crazy Horse’s recalcitrance must have been that much harder to take. They treated him with suspicion and took the U.S. Army’s side against him. Even his great friend who had fought at his side at the Little Bighorn, Little Big Man, had switched loyalties. He had visited Washington, too. He was one of those that assisted in the attempt to confine Crazy Horse the day he was killed.

Crazy Horse wasn’t only an independent spirit when it came to white ways. He was very unusual within Oglala Lakota society. He was a reserved man in a gregarious culture; he dressed simply at all times, when warbonnets, elaborate jewelry, and other showy regalia were the usual garb of warriors in battle; he didn’t scalp the enemies he killed; he didn’t take a wife until he was in his thirties when most of his fellows had started a family by age twenty; though he fought bravely and ferociously, he was also methodical in battle, planning his moves carefully and stopping to shoot accurately when a whirlwind, showy style of fighting was more customary; he spoke little of his own exploits when tales of personal heroism were the usual topic of conversation after a good fight. But his fame grew because the daring and magnificence of his exploits made him an irresistible topic of conversation for others.

The Fetterman fight and the Battle of the Little Bighorn were spectacular victories for Crazy Horse and his warriors, but he would never again enjoy that level of success in battle against the white invaders. His last fight with the U.S. Army was at the Battle of Wolf Mountains, which began when the soldiers attacked his band in the dead of winter.  Much of the fighting, in fact, occurred during a blizzard. The army decided to end the fighting, once and for all, to make an additional show of invincible strength by showing that they were willing and able to pursue the war even in the most extreme weather. The fighting was fierce and, though there was no decisive winner, the Lakota and Cheyenne’s losses were heavy. The camp, too, was suffering greatly from hunger and the intense cold. Crazy Horse was defeated, finally, not in battle, but by observing the suffering of his people. He, like so many great chiefs before him, surrendered so that his people, if they could not enjoy liberty, could at least survive.

Stones placed in formation near the Crazy Horse Monument and guardhouse. It appears to be an unfinished memorial: when doing research for this piece, I found an article from 2015 which discussed plans for a new memorial for Crazy Horse and his entire band, 899 lovers of freedom who were forced to surrender here in 1877. The outer stones to mark four cardinal directions are in place, though they are not the massive ones described in the article, and the central stone has another smaller one beside it for offerings. The concrete walkways and large plaques containing the names of the people are not in place. Perhaps this simplified version was put in place as the often long, tedious, sometimes indefinite fundraising efforts for the more elaborate one continue.

Crazy Horse led his people to the Red Cloud Agency next to Fort Robinson and surrendered there on May 5th, 1877. For the next few months, rumor, gossip, accusations, negotiations, and whispers of plot and conspiracy whirled while Crazy Horse retreated ever further into himself. He was a man of action, not words, and he was impatient with all this hubbub. He had lost his only child, his beloved daughter They Are Afraid Of Her, about four years before, and her mother, his wife Black Shawl, was suffering from tuberculosis. He wanted nothing to be left alone as much as possible so long as he could not fight nor be free. But the rumors that Crazy Horse was plotting to assassinate General George Crook and start another war intensified, and Crook was determined to have him arrested, even assassinated if need be. Later inquiries showed that the rumors were unfounded, that there was no evidence that Crazy Horse planned to do otherwise than keep his word not to fight the whites anymore. Jealousy, infighting, betrayal, and poor translations, both accidental and deliberate, all contributed to the drama.

Left: Adjutant’s office, where Crazy Horse died, to the left of the guardhouse where he was stabbed; all of these buildings are reconstructions based on written records, photographs, and archaeological evidence. So you can see the actual distance between the adjutant’s office from which Crazy Horse walked to the guardhouse. Right: interior of the adjutant’s office with informational sign

The rumors got so bad that Crazy Horse feared that he would be executed or, worse, arrested and removed to some distant land of the whites away from his people, so on September 4th, 1877, he wrapped up his sick wife, and he and a few friends fled to his old friend Spotted Tail’s agency about forty miles east. He sought protection and advice as to what the whites were thinking, and he didn’t think this would betray his promise, of surrender. After all, he was going to an agency. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Jesse M. Lee was ordered to retrieve Crazy Horse, and he escorted him back to Fort Robinson the next morning. They went first to the adjutant’s office.

Stone monument, dedicated in 1934, near the site where Crazy Horse was bayoneted. I placed this little spray of sage here, picked in Deep Ravine at the Little Bighorn Battlefield from which Crazy Horse led his charge to split Custer’s forces. This maneuver was key to the successful outcome of the at battle. You can see that the morning breeze is about to waft the sprig away

Crazy Horse understood that he was to have a chance to talk things over with U.S. Army officials and clear things up. Lee was pretty sure of his innocence regarding all those rumors of plots, conspiracies, and warmongering, and promised Crazy Horse an interview with the white authorities which he didn’t have the authority to arrange. Lee hoped he could persuade the higher-ups to talk to Crazy Horse before deciding his fate, but it was not to be. Unequivocal orders came down for Crazy Horse’s immediate arrest instead. When Crazy Horse was led from the adjutant’s office into the guardhouse, he showed no sign of resistance, walking hand in hand with the captain. But when he stepped in the door, he saw the bars of the prison, and he realized this was a trap: there would be no talks, only imprisonment and then, who knows? So Crazy Horse pushed himself out the door, and as soldiers and his old friend Little Big Man tried to restrain him, he pulled out his knife and slashed Little Big Man’s arm. Another soldier near the guardhouse lowered his bayonet at the ready, and when the opportunity came, he lunged and stabbed. The blade pierced Crazy Horse’ side and into his kidney, and he fell.

After some controversy over what to do (put Crazy Horse in prison as he was, now in his death struggle? Leave him lying where he was as his friends began to hear the news and gather in anger?), he was carried back to the adjutant’s office on the red blanket he had been wearing. He refused the white man’s cot offered to him and asked to be placed on the floor instead. Crazy Horse was given morphine to ease his intense pain and he died, after lingering for long and painful hours, in the presence of his father and stepfather. He spoke forgiving words for most involved with his death except Little Big Man, who had, it seemed, not only betrayed Crazy Horse but all of his people.

Working model at the Visitor Center for the Crazy Horse Memorial, Black Hills, South Dakota. When asked once where his lands were now that the Lakota were being driven out, Crazy Horse answered, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried’.

Crazy Horse has become one of the most widely revered Native Americans in history, if not the most. Many recognize similarities in the life and death story of Jesus Christ to that of Crazy Horse: each was called by the supernatural to be a deliverer of his people, each beheld visions and went out to the wilderness to seek them; each was warned by the supernatural of the nature and manner of death but boldly continued his mission nonetheless; each refused to be tempted away from his purpose by a vision of earthly reward and the sight of a glorious city; each was a loner and dreamer but also a charismatic leader; each called on his people to eschew a life of promised ease and comfort to follow him on a harder road; each preferred simplicity in dress and humility in comportment; each died, falsely accused and betrayed by a friend, with a stab wound in his side. These themes resonate in our American culture generally, in which Christianity plays such a significant formative role. There are so many great Native Americans that we remember and admire but perhaps Crazy Horse remains preeminent in our collective memory for these perceived Christlike qualities. In a strictly historical sense, these similarities are exaggerated and perhaps unwarranted, but in a cultural and spiritual sense, they stand out to us because of their resonance with our most cherished beliefs and values. Native American communities too, many of whom have adopted Christianity and especially those doctrines which echo their traditional faith, perceive Crazy Horse as everything from a stalwart warrior to a messianic figure, a great symbol of hope, deliverance, traditional virtue, and spiritual renewal for their beleaguered peoples.

Crazy Horse Memorial in progress, Black Hills, South Dakota

One last thing: three days ago, I climbed Black Elk Peak in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Sylvan Lake is nearby, and I had stopped there at a lakeside hotel to seek recommendations for the best hike to the top. One of the routes departs from the short of Sylvan Lake, but not the longer, more scenic one which I had chosen. As a teen, Crazy Horse went to Sylvan Lake with his father on a vision quest, one of the most important in his life, in which he was instructed how to paint his body with hailstones and his face with lightning for battle; to dress simply and wear his hair flowing down; to take no scalps; and generally to live a life of bravery and modest virtue. I wanted to find the exact place he went, but it would take a level of meticulous research and mapping that I had run out of time to do before I left. When I return to the Black Hills, I will make a point of seeking out that place.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Buecker, Thomas R. ‘Final Days of Crazy Horse,’ Friends Of The Little Bighorn Battlefield website

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

Cozzens, Peter. The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. New York: Knopf, 2016

Crazy Horse.’ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Fort Robinson and Red Cloud Agency National Historic Landmark Nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. Prepared by Steven Lissandrello and Sarah J. Pearce, Historic Sites Survey, National Park Service / Rocky Mountain Region National Park Service, Sep 27, 1976/Jul 20, 1983

Fort Robinson History‘. Nebraska State Historical Society website

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932

Pearson, Jeffey V. ‘Nelson A. Miles, Crazy Horse, and the Battle of Wolf Mountains‘. From Montana, The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Winter 2001), 53-67; presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

Rose, Christina. ‘Native History: Crazy Horse Fights Final Battle,’ Indian Country Today, Jan 8, 2014

Rose, Christina. ‘New Fort Robinson Memorial Will Honor Crazy Horse and His Band,’ Indian Country Today, Jul 27, 2015

Schubert, Frank “Mickey”. ‘Fort Robinson, Nebraska (1874-1916)‘ Black Past website

Sites and Structures Maintained by the Nebraska State Historical Society‘. Nebraska State Historical Society website

The Black Hills – Mt Rushmore, Black Elk Peak, and Crazy Horse Memorial

The Disneyfied, Las-Vegased Main Street of Deadwood.

Journal: Horsethief Campground North, Black Hills National Forest, Saturday evening, July 22nd, 2017

It’s a little before 10 pm, the last vestige of the sun’s light has left the sky. The starlight is somewhat obscured by the slight haze and the ambient light from this bustling, heavily populated campground. The children’s shouting and crying are finally quieting down but the teens and adults are still chatting, and some are partying. I chose this site, one, because it was available (it was the last one) and two, because of its proximity to the hike I have planned for early tomorrow, I’ll tell you about that after it happens. My tent is pitched for the night, my clothes are ready for the morning. I’ll be glad when the night is over and I can leave this campsite. I’m rather regretting choosing this spot because all the hubbub is breaking the peace and disturbing the beauty that this forest could bring, and worsens the disappointed surprise I’ve been feeling since I entered the Black Hills.

The first attraction (as a street sign identified it) that I came across after entering the Black Hills from the north is Deadwood. This Old West town has been converted to a sort of quaint Disneyland of themey cutesy old-timey trinket-mall combined with Las Vegas excess. I’m sure that if I expected to arrive at Disneyland-LasVegas, I’d think nothing of it, or take it all in with the sense of humor that usually keeps me from turning curmudgeon. But for the last few days I’ve been immersed in national parks, monuments, memorials, forests, and other spaces that move one to wonder and contemplation and even enlightenment. They’re managed so as to showcase, and to protect, and to educate about the natural wonders or important historical occurrences that caused them to be instituted. When I saw that ‘Black Hills National Forest’ sign among the lovely pines across from a glowing red clay hillside, I was happily anticipating more of that since that’s primarily what I was here for.

But here on Deadwood’s Main Street, the greed for gold, which drove our theft and rape of this natural treasure from those who treated it with the leave-no-trace care that did much better justice to its grandeur, is celebrated without any apparent self-consciousness. The signs proclaim ‘Black Hills Gold!’ and ‘Celebrity Hotel!’ and ‘Gaming!Gaming!Gaming!’ I would not presume to speak for any Native American of the Great Plains, but I can imagine that seeing this screamingly cartoon take on the gold rush, for the sake of which countless numbers of their people suffered, died, and were dispossessed of the homes and ways that gave life its meaning, as a result of greed for that ultimately useless soft yellow metal… I imagine that if I saw this while remembering what happened to my ancestors, I would want to vomit or set it all on fire.

Billboards off the highway through the Black Hills, 2017 Amy Cools

Billboards off the highway through the Black Hills. ‘Buy booze!’ they shout.

As I continued my drive, I passed tacky billboard after tacky billboard, loud recreational vehicles roaring by painted in garish colors, each casino and resort and gimmicky attraction following on each other’s heels with tedious regularity, and my mood continued to slump.

As there was a just enough light left to get a look at one of my destinations, I followed the signs to Mt Rushmore. I arrived not long after sunset. It was crowded and it cost $10 to park in the massive parking garage across from the monumental sculpture carved out of the rock of the cliff side (unfortunately, my magic annual National Park pass didn’t work to waive the concession parking charge, as the signs refer to it). The parking garage is actually well-designed for its purpose: it accommodates a huge number of vehicles while not interfering with the view of the sculpture and directs the considerable traffic very efficiently.

Mt Rushmore in Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota, shortly after sunset

Bust of Gutzon Borglum by Lincoln Borglum, Mt Rushmore viewing platform, Black Hills, SD

Mt Rushmore is an impressive, beautifully executed sculpture. There’s an excellent telling of the creation of the Mt Rushmore sculpture by PBS’s American Experience, I very much recommend it.

I don’t care so much for the bust of the Mt. Rushmore sculptor and designer Gutzon Borglum that I passed on the walkway to the viewing platform. The bust is the work of Borglum’s son Lincoln, who helped sculpt Mt Rushmore especially in the finishing stages after his father’s death in 1941. It’s technically good but rather stiff. Except for the semewhat redeeming little smile on the lips, the portrait bears an unfortunate resemblance to those forbidding Lenin busts and sculptures so omnipresent in parts of midcentury Europe. Gutzon Borglum had talent and perseverance and sculpted many of the most important figures in American history, and I’ve encountered his work many times throughout my historical travels. However, I’m not an admirer of him personally; perhaps that contributes to my impression of his portrait bust. He was a rather unscrupulous character and an unabashed white supremacist. I’ve no doubt he was aware of the incongruousness, even insult inherent in carving U.S.-presidential portraits into this U.S.-stolen mountain.

Walkway to the viewing platform at Mt Rushmore

It was sort of a carnival atmosphere when I approached the viewing platform. Patriotic music started blaring over the loudspeakers, and I heard talk of a light show. I was struck by the lack of diversity in the large crowd: I could count non-white people there on two hands. Born and raised in Southern California and having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for fifteen years, I always find a lack of diversity discomfiting. I am used to being around a wide ethnic variety of people and I love it.

I thought about which of the four presidents would approve of their 60-foot-tall likenesses here. Washington and Jefferson: no, surely. Both were wary of the power of power to corrupt one’s character, and neither believed in deifying other human beings, especially themselves, in the way that this extraordinary sculpture seems to do. I’m a little less sure that Lincoln would wholly disapprove: he did believe in the unifying power of symbols, and he was an extremely ambitious man, though I think he was one of those rare characters whose ambition did little to erode his integrity. On the whole, I still think he would disapprove. Of the four, I think Theodore Roosevelt would most likely to approve if it, with his outsize personality, love of power, and ‘great man’ theory of history. He was a committed conservationist and was instrumental in creating the National Park system, but I still think he might approve of this particular exception to the rule of forbearance when it comes to altering natural wonders.

View of Horsethief Campground from my tent

After a rather short time on the viewing platform, I left. I was in no mood for a light show. The sculpture is impressive and looks lovely in the low soft light of the evening, but it just doesn’t belong here in the Black Hills.

Journal: On Black Elk Peak, Black Hills National Forest, Sunday afternoon, July 23rd, 2017

I woke up refreshed and cheerful this morning. The campers, cabin vacationers, and partiers of last night are getting ready for the day. Their evident satisfaction with this beautiful morning after a day and night of fun made me feel more kindly disposed towards them, and I chatted with several of them while waiting for a shower stall to open up, including the hospitable couple from the campsite next to mine who loaned me their camp light last night to set up my tent by.

Black Elk prays to the Six Grandfathers on Black Elk Peak, formerly known as Harney Peak, in 1931, when he ascends this peak for the first time in the flesh. He’s accompanied by his son, and by the poet and author John Neihardt with his daughters. Black Elk had been on this mountaintop in a vision when he was very young, a vision that guided him for the rest of this life. ‘He’d prepared in advance for this address to the gods. In his Vision, he’d been naked except for his breechclout, his body painted red, the color of the right road. But the girls were there and he didn’t want to embarrass them [what a gentleman! – AC], so he stepped behind an outcrop and a few minutes later emerged wearing a bright red union suit commonly called long johns. Over that he wore a black or dark blue breechclout, trimmed in green, and on his feet high stockings and beaded moccasins’ – Joe Jackson, Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary

I packed up my tent and drove to the Sylvan Lake recreation center, where there’s a hotel, cabins, and structures for boating and water sports, and where I’ve been recommended by a few people to start my Black Elk Peak hike from. The young woman at the front desk looked and sounded quite a bit like Winona Ryder, but taller, leaner, more what’s often called ‘girl-next-door’. She looked to me like a local and a hiker so I approached her; my guess turned out to be right. I asked her about the hiking trails to Black Elk Peak, and she hesitated. I assured her that I’m a sturdy hiker and was looking for the best hike, not necessarily the most popular one. Her smile broadened, and she directed me to ascend via Trail #9, the Black Elk / Harney Peak Trail, from the Willow Creek trailhead rather than the Sylvan Lake one. The former is longer and more strenuous, but, she said, much more spectacular. ‘That’s the one, then!’ I said. After all, I’ve gone all this way to do this, so best do it right.

She was the first person in the Black Hills that didn’t react negatively to my calling it Black Elk Peak. It was finally renamed by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names last year after years and years of protest. Until last year, it was named Harney Peak after General William S. Harney, whose forces massacred Native American women and children in the wars for the Plains. When I had asked various people for directions and advice or just mentioned my plans in conversation, the response was invariably a rather sour look and something like ‘Oh, you mean Harney Peak. It’ll always be Harney Peak around here.’ I realize people like familiar things to remain familiar, but I’m still disappointed by this ungenerous reaction. I mean, c’mon. We’ve taken these hills by force and trickery and are milking them for cash to this day, and we’ll never give them back. Let a little something of their sacred history be memorialized here, too.

Trailhead to Black Elk Peak / Harney Peak from Willow Creek, Black Hills, SD, via Trail #9 by way of Trail #8

A view from Trail #9 in the Black Elk Wilderness

Returning to my story, the woman at Sylvan Lake Hotel was right. I’m so very grateful that she sent me here. This 9 ½-mile out-and-back hike is glorious, from gently winding sandy horse trails through pines and voluminous wildflowers to steeper, narrower climbs between fantastic rock formations….

…. Continued later the same day: I stopped writing just there because I of a happy interruption.

As I was writing what you just read, I was perched on a rock near the edge of the peak with a very long, nearly sheer drop under my feet. At overlooks like this one, I like to reverse-Spiderman towards the edge, creeping face-up along on all fours so I can’t slip as I near it, until I find a hollow I can sit in. The depression needs to be deep enough so I can tuck my rear well into it and feel that there’s no way I can fall unless I really tried (this tactic allowed me to fully enjoy the grandest view possible of the Virgin River canyon at Zion National Park from Observation Point not too long ago). I took photos of the amazing scenery from my perch and then was inspired to write. I was so absorbed in my writing that I was unaware of what was happening right next to me until I heard the tinkle of a bell and someone say, ‘Whoa!’ I swung my head around in the direction of these sounds and I saw a couple with their medium-size dog (the bell was on its collar) well behind me on the rocks. I swung my head back around again towards the white shape they were looking at rather near to me on my right, also near the edge like I was.

Perched on a rocky ledge on Black Elk Peak

It was a female Rocky Mountain goat, a mature one, with curved pointed horns. She was perhaps twenty-five or thirty feet away from me. I was surprised that such a large animal could come so close without my noticing, but I think the people who know me best would not be surprised. When I’m reading or writing, generally, I’m pretty oblivious to what’s going on around me. I carefully gathered up my things that I had tucked into another crevice next to me, buckled my pack around my waist again, and backed up a little farther from the edge, moving slowly all the while. I wasn’t afraid of her since she was very clearly not afraid of me so long as I didn’t approach or make any sudden sounds or movements. She kept half an eye on the dog which was carefully restrained by its owners; it was quiet, tensed in riveted attention. After apparently satisfying herself that the dog was no threat, she turned her attention to me, sniffing energetically and edging herself in my direction, chewing her cud all the while. At a certain point, she turned and walked purposefully towards me, coming to a stop about 8-10 feet away. I was only a little nervous, but not as a result of her behavior: she was still at ease. I was just aware that she’s a wild animal, very large, her efficient tools for ridding herself of enemies, and I’m near the edge of a cliff. It’s her natural habitat, but not one I could navigate gracefully if I needed to beat a quick retreat.

A Rocky Mountain goat approaches me on Black Elk Peak

We observed each other for quite a while at these close quarters. She continued to sniff: at my scent? at the snacks in my bag? and to watch me, sometimes looking at my straw-colored hat flopping in the wind. I could almost reach out and touch her: she was only about two steps and an arm’s length away. At one point, however, I coughed, and she shied away about ten feet.

A panoramic view from Black Elk Peak with a Rocky Mountain goat

A broken rock reveals its inner shine, set on a fallen log

After quite awhile, I decided it was time to go. I was thirsty, and I noticed my legs were getting sunburned. I still had a long trek ahead of me, mostly downhill, but steep and very hot. I rose slowly to my feet, and the goat ambled a few more feet away. I looked back at her at the edge of the rocks as I left. She looked grand standing there, ageless.

I wound my way back down, and the sandy trail sparkled under my feet. It’s as if the passing stars, in their slightly changed positions in each night sky, left a pinpoint of their glow behind, except where spilled moonlight stuck to the ground in the form of shining rocks and large luminescent pieces of mica. The trail is beflaked liberally in many places by thin little sheets of this translucent and opalescent mineral.

The trail was also bounded by exuberant sprays and stands of wildflowers. The wild raspberries were bursting with fruit along most of my course up and down. The ripe berries fell off their stems with very little encouragement and were as effortless to eat too. They were so tender that chewing and swallowing were almost unnecessary: you could just roll them on your tongue then press gently in your mouth and they would just dissolve away. I must have eaten one or two pounds of them on the round trip.

Wild raspberries grow plentifully along Black Peak Trail

A view near the top of Black Peak Trail

Flowers and fruits along the Black Peak Trail

Another view from the Black Elk Peak Trail

When I reached the end of my hike, I rested a bit, then headed to the nearest KOA center for some ice. I was soaked in sweat and covered in dust, the latter stuck firmly to me from the former. First I poured several pints of water over the ice, drank all that down, then poured a warm bottle of beer from the car over the rest to enjoy that when I reached my next destination. I headed east on 244, then south on 385.

Portrait of Korczak Ziolkowski at the Crazy Horse Memorial Visitor Center. The unfinished frame is purposeful: by direction of the artist, the rest of it will be put in place when the Crazy Horse sculpture is finished

In the early 1930’s, Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear approached Gutzon Borglum with a proposal to create another monument carved into the Black Hills. This one would immortalize his cousin, the great warrior Crazy Horse, a leader of the victorious Native American forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Not surprisingly, Borglum turned him down. Standing Bear persevered in his search for another sculptor willing to undertake this massive project, and he found one: Korczak Ziolkowski, who had assisted with the carving of Mt Rushmore for a time. Standing Bear discovered him in a 1939 article about his prize-winning sculpture of the Polish pianist, politician, and independence activist Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

Ziolkowski thought the project sounded like a worthy endeavor. He worked on this massive sculpture, which already dwarfs the Mt Rushmore sculpture, with determination and single-mindedness for the rest of his life. He did preliminary work on the Crazy Horse Memorial throughout the early 1940’s when he wasn’t serving in the military, then arrived in the Black Hills in 1947 to begin creating the actual sculpture. He married and had 10 children during this time as well, and died 35 years later on October 20, 1982. His wife and now many of his children carry on his work. It won’t be fully finished for another several decades at least. By the way, it’s fully funded by private donations and the proceeds from entry ticket sales, so if you believe it’s a worthy project too, you can donate here.

The Crazy Horse Memorial sculpture by Korczak Ziolkowski rises from the pines of the Black Hills

Inside the shabby but sturdy old school bus that takes us closer to the Crazy Horse Memorial. I particularly liked our tour guide and driver: a funny and warm sweetheart.

After I arrived at the Visitor Center, I looked at a few of the several thousand interesting and beautiful artifacts and artworks throughout, and then made my way back outside to get a better view of the memorial itself. At the bus stop, I rested, waiting with the other tourists for our ride closer to the sculpture, which is not generally accessible by foot since it’s an active work site. I sipped my cold and watery beer, ate my beef jerky, and chatted with other travelers.

Working model of Crazy Horse Memorial at the Visitor Center

Profile view of George Washington’s sculpted head from the side of Mt Rushmore

When I returned from viewing the sculpture, I lingered at the visitor center and museum for awhile, I set off on my journey north and east to my next destination. On my way out from the Black Hills, I returned to Mt Rushmore, which was pretty much on my way, to see if I felt differently about it. The beauty of Black Elk Peak, seeing the Black Hills there as I had longed to see them, and then seeing the more noble and fitting endeavor of the Crazy Horse Memorial had left me feeling uplifted and inspired. Perhaps I could appreciate this work of art more fully and positively in my now very different frame of mind.

But, it was no good. I still felt the same about Mt Rushmore as I did the day before.

To be continued….

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Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Battle of Ash Hollow‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Crazy Horse Memorial, website by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation

Howard, Brian Clark. ‘Highest Point East of Rockies Renamed for Native American.’ National Geographic online, Aug 12, 2016

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Mountain Goat‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Mount Rushmore‘. Season 14 Episode 4 of American Experience, PBS

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932

Shaer, Matthew. ‘The Sordid History of Mount Rushmore: The sculptor behind the American landmark had some unseemly ties to white supremacy groups‘. Smithsonian Magazine, Oct 2016

Taylor, Alan. ‘Statue or Bust: Around the World in Lenins‘. The Atlantic, Oct 9, 2014

To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories

Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Photo: January 2017 by Amy Cools

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my seventh philosophical-historical adventure: an almost three-week road trip through the Great Plains and on to Illinois. I’ll fly from Chicago to Scotland on August 9th: I’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in the history of ideas at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. In the meantime, I’m overjoyed to have this window of time to explore parts of my country which I’ve never seen, and to learn as much as I can along the way.

During this journey, I’ll explore Yellowstone and the history of National Parks in America (it’s been a great NP year for me!); I’ll travel throughout the Great Plains following the history of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, the Lakota and their and other Native Americans’ encounters with white invaders in the 1800’s and beyond; I’ll visit Springfield, Peoria, and Chicago following Abraham Lincoln, Robert Ingersoll, uniquely American forms of art and architecture, and other topics. I’ll also make many more stops and detours along the way.

Patrons of this series: Ervin Epstein MD, Liz and Russ Eagle, Tracy Runyon, Genessa Kealoha, the Cools-Ramsden family, and Shannon Harrod Reyes ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!

Road Trip Through Indian Country to Chicago, En Route to Edinburgh
Bitterroot Mountains and the Lewis and Clark Wendover Ridge Hike
Lewis & Clark Caverns, Yellowstone National Park, and Our Public Lands
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 1
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 2
The Black Hills – Mt Rushmore, Black Elk Peak, and Crazy Horse Memorial
Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 1
Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 2
My Great Year for National Parks, Monuments, and Forests
Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in Search of Crazy Horse
Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois – Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas Debate
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

Athens and Springfield, Illinois, Part 1, In Search of Abraham Lincoln
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 3
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 4
Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 5

And associated articles

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!
The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them
Happy Birthday, Robert Ingersoll!
The Friendship of Robert G. Ingersoll and Walt Whitman

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Road Trip Through Indian Country to Chicago, En Route to Edinburgh

Amy on a road trip to Death Valley, 2009

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

I’m planning a cross-country road trip before I leave the US for Scotland and grad school. I’ll be traveling across the northern half of the United States, through Indian country and then Peoria, Springfield, & Chicago. I’ll spread this itinerary over a few more days if I can, & would love to hear your suggestions for more interesting historical and cultural sites to visit along this general route. I’ll be writing for Ordinary Philosophy all the while about what I see and learn.

I’m doing this all on the cheap AND I love to meet new people. If you have friends or family along this route that would be willing to host an itinerant writer and indie scholar, I would be grateful for your introduction! In thanks, I’ll write a dedicated piece on any subject of my kind hosts’ choice for O.P.

Here’s my itinerary thus far:

Days 1-4: Spokane, WA (family)
Day 5, 6, & 7: Yellowstone
Day 8: Little Bighorn National Monument
Day 9: Standing Rock
Day 10: Fort Yates – Sitting Bull sites
Day 11: Black Hills National Forest: Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Black Elk Peak
Day 12: Wounded Knee Memorial, Fort Robinson – Crazy Horse sites
Day 13 – 14: Peoria, IL
Day 15: Springfield, IL
Days 16 – 18: Chicago
Day 19: fly to Edinburgh!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!