The Black Hills (Pahá Sapa) are a sacred cultural landscape. Sacred sites litter the landscape – unusual geologic features, hot springs, sacred peaks, and the locations of many legendary doings. Perhaps most important, the Hills hold a cave out of which Buffalo Woman, the first bison, and the Lakota people themselves sprung out of the earth. Many Native names remain on the landscape for those who see them, including Pe’ Sla, Wicicala Sakowin Pahá, and Mato Tipila.
The Pahá Sapa have seen many battles over their ownership and meaning. General George A. Custer successfully sparked a gold rush that led the United States to seize the Hills. This seizure violated previous treaties with the American Indians of the region. A century later, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the justice of Lakota claims, and ordered the federal government to compensate the tribe. The Lakota have continued to demand return of the land instead of cash, so the compensation funds continue to accrue interest in an escrow account.
The Black Hills are home to three national park units – Jewel Cave National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Wind Cave National Park. Two more sites lie near the Hills and arguably part of them: Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument.
Though all are part of the same landscape, National Park Service interest in Lakota stories varies enormously from one sites to another. Jewel Cave says almost nothing. Wind Cave acknowledges that the cave opening is the site of the Lakota origin story, but that’s about all it says. If you look at the visitor center, roadside signs, and website, Wind Cave is clearly much more interested in Anglo history. It tells of the struggles over cave ownership before this site became a national park, the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps to build the park’s infrastructure, and the government’s efforts to build a game preserve here.
The South Unit of Badlands National Park does tell these stories. It’s in a portable trailer along the side of a state highway, and many of its exhibits do not meet the current quality standards of the NPS – clearly telling the occasional visitor how important the center is for the NPS. It’s also far off the beaten tourist track, and lies on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Changes are afoot at Mount Rushmore. The brochure opens up the story a little bit, saying, “The faces on this mountain remind some of the founding fathers and the birth of this nation. For others these faces remind them of cultural injustices and the loss of land and heritage.” In the summer, a “Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Heritage Village” interprets the traditions of local Native communities.
Devils Tower (Mato Tipila) does much more. It tells visitors that this is a spiritually significant place to many tribal nations, and it uses the peak’s name in those languages. It explains the colored flags and tobacco offerings that visitors may see at the site. The park asks rock climbers not to climb the Tower in June because the month of the summer solstice has special religious significance. It also explains both sides of the rock climbing controversy, since many Native Americans would like people not to climb the Mato Tipila at all.
What do the more successful sites have in common? The changes at Mount Rushmore occurred under Superintendent Gerard Baker (Mandan-Hidatsa), who grew up on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Devils Tower has seen many of its changes under Superintendent Dorothy FireCloud (Rosebud Sioux) and her successor Reed Robinson (also Rosebud Sioux). Interpretation at Badlands South Unit is provided by the Oglala Lakota Nation through a cooperative agreement with the NPS.
Quite simply, when American Indians get a chance to manage these sites, Native stories appear. If Anglos have always managed the site, Native stories appear in only a pro forma way. Under Anglo management, centuries and millennia of Native heritage in the Pahá Sapa become a few sentences on a roadside sign. Those words are far less than attention than failed homesteaders, summer paleontology expeditions, or the Civilian Conservation Corps receive.
Telling everyone’s stories of the Pahá Sapa is better than only telling some people’s stories. Achieving that is pretty simple in principle: hire Native American superintendents and/or develop cooperative agreements with affiliated tribes. Because about eight percent of NPS employees are Native Americans, there’s a strong talent pool already available.
This post draws on material from my book manuscript, Telling America’s Stories: How the National Parks Interpret Westward Expansion. You can find some spin-off articles on my research page.
For some related articles, see
“No Longer Circling the Wagons: Many National Parks Get Indian Stories Wrong,” Indian Country Today, 7 September 2011.
“How the Cherokee Fought the Civil War,” Indian Country Today, 28 March 2012.
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