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Our Visit Continues in South Dakota

South Dakota has been surprising. To be honest, we did not have high expectations for the state. We sort of thought that it would be a little dry and boring. After having travelled through the plains of the midwestern states, we were surprised to meet the huge mountains and boulders of South Dakota.

If I had to describe South Dakota in one word, it would be “proud”. The landscape of the state feels proud, as mountains stand erect and firm against the backdrop of the skyline. Huge tall mountains of granite filled the horizon as we approached our home for the next few days. And out of those rock formations, the four presidents came to meet us: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and, hidden in the back of the row, Abraham Lincoln. Even though we were expecting them on the climbing highway, it still felt like a surprise and a privilege to see them before us form the window of our RV. Even the kids yelled out when they spotted them, “Rushmore!”. There is something special about seeing before you, something that you have only spotted in movies or in pictures up until now.

The four presidents sit in the middle of the Black Hill Forest. This is the spot that the sculptor Gutzon Borglum chose to chisel the residents into the mountains, and it took him 14 years from 1927 to 1941 to turn this national monument into reality. When we visited Mount Rushmore, what struck me most was the level of ambition with which this monument was built. Gutzon is quoted as saying, “A monument's dimensions should be determined by the importance to civilization of the events commemorated.” This is what Gutzon thought of his nation and of the leaders that he carved into the mountain. Visiting Mount Rushmore feels like you are visiting the essence of civilization. The patriotism that envelopes the monument is thick and impenetrable: Americans are proud and they see themselves, for better or for worse, as the center of the civilized world.

This was especially evident when we visited the demure village of the Lakota, Nakota and Lakota Village. Situated on the sight of Mount Rushmore, I got excited when I saw a sign for this Indigenous village. I thought that I would get a genuine perspective into the Indigenous worldview for Mount Rushmore. I saw this as a wonderful teaching moment for my boys so that they would see the true history of how things went down in the past. We walked into the “village” but I quickly realized that the “village” was a total of three teepees set up for people to take pictures. Not exactly a village and not exactly a genuine experience of Indigenous life. What a disappointment.

Luckily, there was an interpreter there. His name was Sequoia Crosswhite.

He took the time to explain, patiently and with a great pedagogy, that Indigenous peoples lived throughout this area for time immemorial. He reminded us that when European settlers arrived, they were keen to purchase land which the Indigenous peoples did not consider to be something that could be owned or traded. He taught us that when European settlers decided that they were settling the land, they moved the Indigenous peoples to reservations, far away from the majestic lands which form the Black Hills today. Listening to Mr. Crosswhite talk, I heard the other version of history, and I was able to nuance the patriotic version which was being sold around the Mount Rushmore Monument from the more realistic version which most likely took place. I am very happy that we met him.

The history which we have seen exposed so far in museums and exhibits is quite Euro-centric. The Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples which we are living in Canada is far from a reality here in the

United States. Patriotism trumps all, here. As Patrick mentioned in a previous post, there are American flags everywhere we look. From front lawns to businesses, from government buildings to food packaging, from t-shirts to stamps:

everything wears the US flag!

Despite this exaggerated patriotism, South Dakota remains a place to discover. Its nature, alone, has been worth our trip. We spent the afternoon yesterday driving through Custer State Park where we saw herds of pronghorns (they look like antelopes) and towns of prairie dogs. We drove through herds of bison and big horned sheep crossing the road. We got up close with white and brown burros (i.e. donkeys) and saw plenty of deer. Today, we visited Jewel Cave National Monument which is the fifth longest cave in the world. We spent 1.5 hours walking through tunnels in the cave and staring with awe at the stalactites, stalagmites, rock flows and curtains. We even saw a formation called cave bacon because it looks like… you guessed it... bacon! It has been quite a treat to spend time in such a beautiful environment.

As I write this, we are settling in for the night in Wyoming (Tenth State we have visited so far). Our quest across the northern US continues. We are close to 3000 km from home and 6 weeks into our trip. We are discovering new sights every day, learning along the way and remaining grateful for our opportunity to do this together. We continue to go to bed exhausted every day. We still laugh at each other’s silliness (with intermittent eye rolls from the kids, of course). And we wake up every morning, excited to see what the day has in store for us. Life is good.

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