Beneath Mount Rushmore

Stones are the oldest and wisest spirits.
They sit and listen to thousands of years of history.
-Larry, our host

First let it be said that I have a fair amount of respect for the United States’ early Presidents. Plus-minus a few quandaries, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln all make the list of people I’d love to have fair-trade, American-grown, non-taxable tea with. I wouldn’t mind if Theodore Roosevelt also came along. He could stir the brew with his big stick.

That being said, and despite the fact that Mount Rushmore does exhibit purely awe-inspiring work of explosive engineering, having the faces of presidents blasted into the mountainside does make me wonder. Firstly, I’m not sure if gents like Washington and Jefferson would’ve approved to begin with as it doesn’t really scream enlightened Protestantism to me. From what I recall, Horatio Greenough sculpted a statue of Washington in the style of a Greek god and people freaked out about it. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, the Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota people, and as a theology major I have a definite thing against disrespecting religious places and artifacts, particularly if the people are still around to appreciate them.

And so I journeyed to the underside of the mountain so to speak, to the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Lakota nation with Okiciyapi Tipi Habitat for Humanity.

It was a great week. I installed flooring and speckled and painted walls. While carrying a piece of drywall up a ramp, the wind suddenly picked up and carried the drywall piece like a hot-air balloon across the plains, knocking me off the ramp and through a glass window lying next to the house. The fall was epic. There was lots of broken glass and bloodied cuts and a considerable amount of sniffles, as well as an unusual pride that I’d have a great story to tell when I got home. After all, stunt men only fall through sugar glass; I survived the real stuff.


Cuts, bruises and broken windows aside, falling into Lakota culture brought the most memorable moments. Free-spirited, aware, the reservation seemed to run by its own rules, ones more closely aligned to the natural world. Children played with dogs that could have been wolves. Horses seemed especially mischievous. The natural world held mystery, mysticism and wisdom, a view reflected in the way they spoke. Physical cleansing aligned with spiritual cleansing. In the homes sage burned to ward off evil spirits, and tobacco smoke carried prayers from the body to the sky. We attended a sweat lodge ceremony where water is poured over hot rocks in complete darkness. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever sweated and not felt dirty.

One man I spoke to seemed more comfortable outside than indoors. He talked of hardship and of hunting, and of how he offered a sun dance in honor of his niece to rid her of bad dreams (which includes fasting and dancing around a pole for days while being tethered to it by a rope pinned to your chest).

Nature pervades life, and despite all the political battles and hardship the Lakota people have endured, it seems the Indian lives on, for amid familiar jokes and small talk one could hear an ancient wisdom echoing through, the Black Hills calling from beneath Mount Rushmore.

The Crazy Horse Memorial under construction, also in the Black Hills, and an artifact from the museum.