Been There, Done That

For Every Robert E. Lee a Rosa Parks; For Every Custer a Crazy Horse

By RICK MELLERUP | Sep 13, 2017

What this country needs is more Crazy Horses!

In the late summer of 1965, when I was 10, my parents, myself and my loyal, only-35-pounds-but-tough-as-nails mutt, Cookie, took a month-long camping trip across the United States. We left our home in Windsor, Vt., traveling to and then south of the Great Lakes, crossing the Mississippi River at St. Louis, continuing on a southern route to San Diego, heading up the coast to Olympia, Wash., and then taking the northern route back to the Green Mountain State.

A similar trip is something every American should take at least once in their lifetime, sort of a civic equivalent to the Muslim Hajj or a Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. You will understand so much more about the U.S. by taking such a journey, especially if you get off the beaten track of the interstate system. It will quickly become obvious why there were red and blue states even before the Tea Party, President Trump, Black Lives Matter and Antifa – simple geography and smaller population density make the people of the Great Plains or Rocky Mountain states have very different needs and political solutions than those of the coasts.

Then there’s the natural beauty, sometimes sneaking up on you in its simplicity, sometimes dramatic.

And you just never know what you’ll unexpectedly run into: immense husks (herds) of giant jackrabbits at night in Colorado, seemingly as big in your headlights as Jersey whitetail does; a toehold of the Black Plague in Arizona – yes, the same Black Plague that killed tens of millions in the 14th century.

Plenty of fine books, sometimes with variations – by rail, bus, hitchhiking, bicycling, motorcycling – have been written about such trips. I probably have one in me, but for now a few columns will have to do.

First, though, because of timeliness, I will zoom in on my visiting a couple of landmarks, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

The former was the starkest historic site/sight I’ve ever seen. In the sun-baked, gently rolling hills of southeastern Montana sat what looked to me like the neglected small town cemeteries that can be found scattered about in rural northern New England. Headstone-like markers commemorated the spots where 263 members of the three companies of the U.S. 7th Cavalry commanded by Lt. Col. George A. Custer had been killed by thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors in the Battle of Little Bighorn. It was desolate, with prairie grasses practically covering the markers (not real gravestones – the bodies of the enlisted men had actually been reburied underneath a granite U.S. Army Memorial monolith on Last Stand Hill while the remains of officers had been removed to cemeteries throughout the country with Custer’s being reinterred at West Point). I can’t remember the site even having a visitors center, though it seems something like that should have been necessary, at least to provide restrooms and some informational material. I faintly recall a park ranger and a 15-minute spiel; I definitely can recall there were only a few visitors present besides my family.

When people visit Gettysburg, almost everybody except young children and folks who fell asleep in both grade and high school history classes knows how high the stakes had been in that 1863 battle – the tens of thousands of casualties, the fate of slavery, the proposition that “all men are created equal” and the question if “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” When I visited Little Bighorn I wondered what on earth 263 cavalry troopers and scouts had died for, because the landscape seemed so barren it couldn’t have possibly been worth fighting for.

Mount Rushmore provided the answer. Yes, the enormous stone carvings by Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln in the Black Hills of South Dakota depicting Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt are awesome. But it was on the road approaching the memorial that the story became clear. There were many “pan for gold” tourist traps spread out among the ice cream stands, amusement rides and rattlesnake farms. Basically, the lands – and the Black Hills were the Holy Lands of the Lakota Sioux – were raped for mineral wealth, and the Native Americans simply had to get out of the way so miners could invade. Custer was fighting for glory; Crazy Horse and his warriors were fighting for their survival.

The Native American experience wasn’t reflected, as far as I can recollect, at either site in 1965. Today, I understand, it is, especially at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, where in 2003 a $2 million Indian Memorial was added, along with red granite markers denoting where warriors fell during the battle. Even the name of the site was changed, from the former Custer Battlefield National Monument.

If I were to make the trip to the Badlands today, I would add an additional stop, at the Crazy Horse Memorial just 16 miles away from Mount Rushmore. This work, in progress since 1948, designed by Polish sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, will, if completed by his descendents, dwarf Mount Rushmore. The head of Crazy Horse alone is planned to be 87 feet high while the heads of the four American presidents are just 60 feet high. The new sculpture’s total dimensions, including Crazy Horse’s steed, are planned to be 641 feet wide and 563 feet high, making it, if completed, the world’s largest sculpture.

This is why this tale of my childhood travels is relevant today. There is, you see, another “Last Stand” battle taking place over Civil War monuments.

I find this difficult to believe, but I actually agree with President Trump for once. When will it all end? He predicted people would soon demand the removal of statues and memorials to Washington and Jefferson, considering they were slave owners. Already the movement has spread so that a statue of Christopher Columbus may soon be removed from New York City’s Columbus Circle, and a bust of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton, another slaveholder, has been temporarily removed from public view at the New Jersey university that bears his name.

I dread the removal of history, even if that history has, in many cases, been disgraceful. I don’t want to see the U.S. become like the Taliban, blowing up magnificent ancient Buddhist mountain carvings in Afghanistan.

Instead I want to see more memorials, more statues, more history. There are hundreds of Confederate statues in the South (and, by the way, hundreds of Union statues in the North). So match them, one by one, with statues of and memorials to the warriors of the Civil Rights era, and not just Martin Luther King Jr., but also the often forgotten heroes of small towns throughout Dixie and beyond, folks who risked – and often gave – their very lives fighting oppression, the KKK and hate. I don’t want to see the memory of men like Robert E. Lee erased, considering he was a great general and, before turning traitor to his country, an outstanding U.S. Army officer. But I would like to see tributes to the memory of the men and women who, 100 years after the Civil War, finally brought the legacy of Lee and the Confederacy, Jim Crow, to its knees.

Let’s celebrate this country’s amazing diversity. Let’s make history, all of our history, visible in every town square, before every courthouse – damn, practically on every corner. Make the history of the people, by the people, for the people an everyday presence that reminds us of the progress this country has slowly and haltingly made and awakens us to the fact that much work still remains to be done.

Is the idea of more Crazy Horses really that crazy?

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