Saturday, September 8, 2018

Travel Reflection: The Native American Spirit

Over the last week, I have been on an enthralling road trip heading home from the west coast of the U.S. (from Washington State) to the east coast (to New York State). So far, it has been an incredible journey of nature and history. However, today I was so impacted by what I learned and experienced that I felt compelled to immediately share it.
Since yesterday, I have been in Rapid City, South Dakota. Today I had the opportunity to visit Mount Rushmore. It was of course fascinating to visit such an artistic and engineering feat and testimony to American history that I have only seen in pictures my whole life. But what impacted me far more was another memorial that I think most people do not know about, as I did not know about it myself until arriving here.
This is the Crazy Horse Memorial located only a short drive away from Mount Rushmore. In 1948, a Native American chief from the Oglala Lakota tribe by the name of “Henry” Standing Bear commissioned a Polish-American sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski to sculpt a Native American memorial into a mountain not far from Mount Rushmore. Standing Bear was a Native American born into Native American culture, but who attended an American school that attempted to restyle its Native American students by giving them Anglo-Saxon names, cutting their hair, requiring them to wear Western clothing, and forbidding them from speaking their native language. Standing Bear proved to be an outstanding student and acquired a profound eloquence in the English language, but did not forget his roots and the plight of his people, using his education and eloquence to become a spokesperson for Native American causes. Ziolkowski was born in Boston to Polish immigrants, but was orphaned at one year of age and spent a difficult childhood moving from one foster home to another. However, over time he made a name for himself as a prominent sculptor.

The carving of Mount Rushmore alerted Standing Bear to the need for a memorial to tell the Native American side of American history. Ziolkowski soon became dedicated to this cause, and embarked on a project to sculpt a Native American memorial in the mountains of South Dakota that would rival Mount Rushmore, and to use the funds from tourists to establish a museum dedicated to educating people about Native American culture and history, as well as a medical center and a university to train Native Americans in medicine, law, and other fields. When Ziolkowski consulted the Oglala Lakota leaders as to whom they would like the mountain sculpture to portray, they all agreed on Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse was a Oglala Lakota leader who successfully fought against encroaching American settlers to protect the land and way of life of his people. His most famous victory was in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, in reference to Crazy Horse’s defeat of the Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his forces. The following year, Crazy Horse died after being arrested by the settler military post guard and stabbed with a bayonet by one of its members. He was a Native American hero who was respected not only by his own people, but even by his enemies. In 1982, he was ranked among the “Great Americans” by U.S. Postal Service
who issued a postage stamp in his honor.
Korczak Ziolkowski died before completing the Crazy Horse sculpture, but his family has continued the project in admirable dedication to sharing the Native American side of the American story.

When I exited the Crazy Horse visitor center and museum, it was raining outside. As I headed for my car, I turned in the direction of the Crazy Horse sculpture to take one last picture. To my amazement, a rainbow had formed right next to it, and I was delighted to be able to capture such a moment:

It is significant that even settlers from the time of Columbus, who treated the Native Americans in extremely inhumane ways over the course of centuries, admitted that the nobility, generosity, and spiritual devotion these people were beyond anything they had ever witnessed.
The following is the text of an extremely beautiful and moving Native American prayer to the “Great Spirit,” the Native American term for God, that I saw in the museum:

Prayer to the Great Spirit
“Oh Great Spirit, Giver of All Life,
You have been always, and before you nothing has been. 
Look and smile upon us your children,
So that we may live this day to serve You.
Watch over my relatives, the red, black, white and brown.
Sweeten my heart and fill me with light this day.
Give me strength to understand and the eyes to see.
Help me Great Spirit, for without you, I am nothing.”

- Paul War Cloud

As a side note, I have been extremely amazed to learn recently of the profound and striking similarities between the faith and praxis of Native American religion and that of Islam. As the Quran says, God has imprinted the souls of all people with an instinctual faith and moral compass, and has appointed “a messenger among every community” to remind, show, and teach them of the divine path (10:47; 16:36). I highly recommend this fascinating discussion on the topic, drawing on the book ‘The Gospel of the Red Man’ by Ernest Thompson Seton:

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