Skip to main content
Updated:
Original:

Wickham: The floating heads of Mount Rushmore

The New York Times recently ran stories about U.S.- and U.N.-funded rebuilding of ruined treasures of the ancient world. One, titled ''The Reach of War; From Ruins of Afghan Buddhas, a History Grows'' decried the Taliban's 2001 demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the world's largest standing statues built 1,500 years ago, carved into a mountainside. UNESCO prompted restoration by calling it an ''Endangered World Heritage Site.'' Another story lauded a U.S.-funded restoration of the crumbling 5,000-year-old fortress temples built by Egyptian kings before the pyramids.

Later, a Jan. 20 Times op-ed, ''Archives of Spin,'' criticized presidential libraries. An accompanying graphic parodied Mount Rushmore, depicting its chiseled heads as book covers. The author argued the libraries' legacies should be restored from compromising politics, resulting in a little more than extended campaign commercials: ''Presidential libraries are vital institutions that help us learn from our history ... [not] temples of political propaganda.''

Publicizing the restoration of these cultural artifacts is advertising for a worldview celebrating mankind's grand progress. They mislead because antiquities through history took a tragic route that disconnected the mind from its millennial relationship with the landscape - the aboriginal sense of awe, beauty and reverence for place. This trajectory eventually transformed sacred land into lifeless raw clay, unworthy of preservation as beauty unless reshaped into ego-centered monuments. Venerating man's earthworks then morphed into an economic ideology of property to possess, resources to strip mine.

Modernity confronts a wrecked earth-climate, dwindling resources and decimated species in shattered habitats. Mount Rushmore's effigies symbolize a Swiss Army knife of prosperity and progress - freedom from tyranny, democracy, social and racial equality, and capitalism. These ideals proved inadequate to the environmental tasks ahead and have become part of the problem. President Bush's technological Band-Aids may postpone this crash, but they will not stop the engine. Something fundamental is required, and Mount Rushmore holds a clue.

Mount Rushmore can be parodied as decapitated heads floating over the land, having lost all memory of it. Like the Taliban's vandalism, Mount Rushmore represents a national graffiti by disfiguring the magnificent natural imagery of the historic Black Hills. Mount Rushmore's icons of iron superimpose the ideological superiority of American ideals over ageless indigenous wisdom. This portrays another ideal as worthless to mankind - the extraordinary insights into human nature by Native cultures that for 10,000 years revered and protected this distinctive landscape.

The definition of ''ancient antiquities'' must be expanded by the United Nations to restore historic and culturally sensitive landscapes - such as the Black Hills - from the ruins of pillaging capitalists. This requires a new worldview of our relationship with nature that draws upon the aboriginal psychology of the sacred sense of place. Mainstream society and its religions mock this as the poetic product of primitive halfwits. However, emerging cognitive science argues that language itself evolved from the myth-building process within the human mind - an interactive experience with animals and a ''living'' landscape. We carry this genetic inheritance today, albeit a dormant undercurrent of our psyche; an instinct repressed under the modern consciousness of hyper-rationality, seeing landscapes as inert matter.

Native traditions associated with the Black Hills' petroglyphs and surrounding buttes epitomize the lost worldview of sacred landscape. They did not view the landscape as metaphorical, but possessed of life or spirit. Place was not passive. Science instructs that the brain's neural-architecture for consciousness is highly receptive to interact with landscape in a dynamic, potent way. According to author, researcher and lecturer Paul Devereux, who specializes in such areas as cognitive archaeology and ancient sites and worldviews, ''the forms, textures, smells, sounds and light on a particular place can trigger mental associations and concepts that organize perceptions, feelings, imaginings.'' These recurring psychic patterns link verbal skills with imagery to create narrative myths. They become the perceptual building blocks of language because memory recall is easier if fixed to landscapes. Language's abstract syntax would be impossible without a brain primed from the stimulation of visual imagery.

The center of the world for the Oglala Sioux is the Black Hills. The conceptual ''sacred center'' once crossed all cultures, depicted as a terrestrial ''navel,'' symbolizing a pregnant Mother Earth and newborn with protruding navels. The word ''human'' derives from the Old Latin homo - earthborn. This world-center linked the belly underworld, the middle human world and ancestor world. The Black Hills is the heart of tribal culture: ceremony, pilgrimage, offerings, fasting and contemplation. Linea Sundstrom's book, ''Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art of the Black Hills Country,'' documents 10,000 years of petroglyphs of those treasuring the landscape. The rocks were portals to all living things and worlds. This ''body-centering'' made the ground psychologically meaningful and prevented its thoughtless destruction. Only in the 1980s were some of these petroglyphs listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Countless others are destroyed or unprotected on private land. So in the 1920s, the landscape was vulnerable to the Taliban-like demolition called Mount Rushmore.

The instinctive mind-landscape dialogue today survives in various mutations. The escapist dogma of world religions severed the spirit from natural imagery to banish the collaborative partnership. Tourists to the Grand Canyon stare, speechless, without a communal narrative to awaken them to greater meaning and kinship. As 19th century nature poet William Wordsworth strained to say: ''I have felt a presence that disturbs me with [a] joy ... a sense sublime of something more deeply interfused.'' We are conceptually lost in space, uprooted and homeless in a prepackaged mono-culture of generic strip malls, manufacturing complexes and cookie-cutter housing. Gone are powerful narratives binding culture to landscape preservation.

The ideals of Mount Rushmore should symbolize freedom from a modern tyranny that preserves only contrived man-made antiquities. Those effigies should not stare blankly ahead into empty space. They should look beneath and around the Black Hills that cradle them, as Oglala holy man Black Elk once did. This sacred center is a beacon to revise the modern mind, reconnecting humanity to a lost dialogue and sense of place.

John Wickham is an attorney representing service members and veterans in claims against the government. He lives in Evergreen, Colo.