As Avery, Madge, and I reached the breathtaking Black Hills of South Dakota, I couldn’t shake the growing pit in my stomach. My American history lessons on pilgrims, the Oregon Trail, and foreign wars haven’t prepared me for the emerging history I am learning on this trip—one marred by brutal battles on our own soil, ignorance, broken promises, cultural repression, and fear.
And here, in the Black Hills, the conflicts with and mistreatment of American Indians feels especially tangible. The hills are central to the culture of the Lakota people and a place of deep religious significance. In 1868, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Lakota to establish the Great Sioux Reservation and exempted the Black Hills from any white settlement. But just six years later, under the guise of a military expedition, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his unit discovered gold in the area, launching a gold rush that pushed the Lakota off the land and began a series of bloody battles that would take hundreds of lives on both sides, including Custer’s.
It was strange to stand on this sacred land: rugged wilderness that seemed to both personify the beauty of the American spirit and the darkness of our ambition. We stared up at those four carved faces in the mountains, men whose actions created the greatest democracy the world has ever known. But we thought also of those roadside monuments to fallen Lakota and Sioux warriors and of the many people who have shaped this nation, whose faces and names are long forgotten. We stopped in gift shops selling moccasin and dream catchers and thought of the generations of children who were stripped of their moccasins, their culture, and their dreams.
Avery and I have passed many miles of this trip discussing hypocrisy—and we are intimately aware that we’re exploring America’s natural beauty through the windshield of a gas-guzzling machine. It is a daily challenge for us all to be socially, culturally, and environmentally aware. But ignorance is not the solution. So as we entered the Black Hills, we did so with respect and reverence for the generations of American Indians who have protected this land as a matter of faith and principle, and we are learning all we can about their rich culture and on-going suffering. Our country is beautiful and our nation is a shining city. But there are many lessons to be learned and miles to drive before we sleep.