Descrating Sacred Mountains

Back in 1992, my husband and I took my elderly mother to see Mount Rushmore. It was a summer journey, mid-July. Mother and I drove to Burr Oak, Kansas in Jewell County to visit our relatives. We took Interstate 70 to Saint Louis, skirted around the stunning Kayoki Mound, and drove to Highway 36. When my grandfather traveled to Kansas from Louisville, Kentucky, he always took Highway 36 and told me it was the “best road.” Of course, his daughter and I followed instructions, even though he had been dead for 20 years by then. We stopped along the road in a forgotten town for the night and then drove on to Burr Oak the next day. In the mean time, Max had work tasks and could not leave for a week. He then took the train to Chicago from Indianapolis and transferred to the Zephyr [Amtrack: Chicago to San Francisco daily] for the trip to Nebraska. Unfortunately, he rode through tornado struck towns and high winds, making for a delayed and adventuresome ride. On the appointed night, I rose a 2:00 am and drove from the motel to my cousin Homer Lewis Grubbs’ home just outside of town. He was actually my mother’s cousin and is 9 years younger than she, so he was about 70 then.  He had graciously agreed to drive with me, saying it was too far and too late in the night for an unaccompanied woman. As we drove from his home to town, he was startled to see a man leaning against the bridge railing. “Now why is he there in the middle of the night??” Spooky. We never found out, but Burr Oak has less than 200 in population, so it was a worry. We took Highway 281 from Burr Oak to Hastings, a straight shoot of 60 miles. The clear sky was amazing with stars shining bright and a spectacular view of the Milky Way. The train was hours late, due to the storms, but Max finally arrived at 5:30 am.

My family’s homestead was only 20 miles from Red Cloud, Nebraska, home of Willa Cather. On our trip, we visited her home and I thought about her books and characters, set in the familiar prairies of our family stories. After a few more days of visiting cemeteries and driving the countryside looking for former family homes, we drove on through Hastings again to Grand Island, Nebraska and took the scenic Highway 2 through the Sand Hills of Nebraska. It was fascinating—dry, one cow per acre, windmills, gradually rising  small hills covered with sagebrush and sandy soil. We even saw the modern Stonehenge which someone had constructed to scale using old automobiles. Finally, we drove through Chadron where Max’s long-time friend Professor Paul Fowler was born. Max wanted to see where Paul came from—a long way from nowhere it turns out. We then drove to Custer, South Dakota in the Black Hills National Forest and found a motel.

In the next several days we drove through Wind Cave Natural Park, and the amazingly beautiful Custer State Park, as well as Badlands National Park and part of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Our visit to Mount Rushmore shocked me. First, the mountain is stunningly beautiful and the whole setting is gorgeous. I was stunned at the visceral reaction I had to the faces carved into the sacred mountain. I had to turn away, I was so nauseated. Yes, I know the presidents there are ones who had the vision to develop the country, to purchase the land, to expand the frontier, to open the West. I admire their wisdom and courage. But, oh, to carve on their sacred mountain the faces of the colonial forces that pushed the Native Americans back into the reservations. Beyond deplorable. Ikeda Sensai says, in The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, Volume 1,

“… it is absolutely clear that nature is not something for human beings to use and exploit as they see fit,
solely for their own interests. Both nature and humanity are part and whole of the life of the universe.
Nature and humanity are one. To destroy the natural world is to destroy human life as well.” *

In our travels around the country, we have seen the evil tapestry of oppression and contempt in our treatment of Native Americans. When have the Native Americans ever been equal to the Whites, as in “All men are created equal?”  Our trip through Pine Ridge and our later trips to visit other reservations revealed the shocking poverty, the serene beauty of the bare and boneless land, the meager resources, the exile from the rest of the country. The Black Hills National Forest is rich and luscious with trees and grazing land. The Natives on Pine Ridge live on rock, sand, and dried sagebrush. It is the same on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, as so many others.

After exploring the region, my mother flew home to Columbus, Ohio from ?? South Dakota, while Max and I drove on to Wyoming and Montana. One of the pleasures of a cross-country driving trip is the awesome beauty of America. Out in the natural world, the spacious skies are beautiful.

  • Ikeda, Daisaku, Katsuji Saito, Takanori Endo, Haruo Suda. 2000 by the Soka Gakkai.  The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, Volume I. Santa Monica, CA. World Tribune Press. p. 198.

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