Monuments’ Dubious Honor of American Indians
Jennifer K. Falcon
As confederate monuments across the country are being taken down, I cannot help but think about my trip across Indian Country this summer and all the monuments honoring the genocide of Native Americans scattered throughout the United States. This July I spent just under two weeks traveling through Oklahoma, Colorado, Montana and South Dakota, exploring historical points dedicated to Native American people and “honoring” our history in the United States.
I saw the stark difference between tribally controlled monuments and those controlled by the National Park Service. The Choctaw Cultural Center, which educates visitors about the Trail of Tears, left my family and me in awe, while the National Park Service monuments like the Little Bighorn Battlefield and the Crazy Horse Monument left us feeling misunderstood and, to be frank, insulted.
While visiting the Little Bighorn Battlefield, a battle we won and a monument to honor our victory, I noticed in the center of 200 white marble grave markers honoring white lives was a large brown marble monument that reads, “To the officers and soldiers killed or who died of wounds received in action in the territory of Montana while clearing the district of the Yellowstone of hostile Indians.”
It was my 13-year-old daughter who noticed this monument and was upset. I felt her anger. I watched as white people explored the many monuments that honored the colonizers who meant to eradicate the “hostile Indians,” and wondered why the National Park Service would think that this was in any way honoring the Native lives lost.
While I cite my disdain for this monument, which happens to sit on the Crowe Agency, the majority of its staff Native, I must also acknowledge that steps have been taken to even out the story of this monument. In 1991 President George Bush signed Public Law 102-201, renaming the Custer Battlefield National Monument to the Little Bighorn Battlefield monument, and requiring a memorial to recognize the Indians who had lost their lives in this battle. Although these were steps in the right direction, the Native monument is tucked behind a hill and is difficult to find.
CRAZY HORSE NATIONAL MONUMENT
There are no known verified photos of Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, but in the sacred Black Hills there is a monument being etched into land with explosives. I have heard the legends of Crazy Horse refusing to have his photo taken for as long as I can remember, and know that people cite this as a reason that the monument, while meaning to “honor” Natives, does anything but. This is a valid point, but for me it’s the use of explosives to etch his face into our sacred Black Hill where the real dishonor lies. How can you honor Crazy Horse when he was protecting his culture, his people and his land, while desecrating the land he lost his life to defend?
Indians are able to visit this monument for free, so my daughters and I wanted to check out the “Legends in Light,” a laser show that is held during the summer on the monument itself. Promotional literature boasts that the show is meant to promote “understanding and harmony among all people.” But my daughters and I were so offended by the show that we actually left. After an incoherent narrative and kitschy light show more suited for a theme park, the laser light show launched into a tribute to the United States military while blaring “Proud to be an American.” Many Native Americans have served courageously in the United States Armed Services, and I certainly don’t question their contributions to society, but blowing up sacred Indian lands to memorialize a warrior who refused to have his photograph taken hardly seems like an appropriate venue to recognize their sacrifice. I cannot know the intentions of those who designed the light show, but it certainly came across as a slap in the face to me and my daughters.
IN COMPARISON: THE CHICKASAW CULTURAL CENTER
In Sulphur, Oklahoma, the Chickasaw Nation built a state-of-the-art heritage center. This beautiful facility highlights the struggle of the Chickasaw Nation without whitewashing it and is a true homage to the beauty of the resilience of the Chickasaw people. Their museum depicts the plight of the genocide inflicted upon our people and should be a national model for the National Park Service monuments, it’s a beautiful tribute to the truth while honoring who we are today. As equality and racial justice conversations evolve I hope that our National Parks Service takes the time to ask Native Americans what is the best way to honor our fight against colonization and genocide so we can move forward and heal.