Native Americans: Stories in Stone

I. “Whenever, in the course of the daily hunt, the red hunter comes upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime–a black thundercloud with the rainbow’s glowing arch above the mountain; a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of sunset–he pauses for an instant in the attitude of worship.”

Charles Eastman, “The Soul of the Indian”

II. “In the world where I was raised, life has only a brief moment of flowering — the time of physical strength for men, the season of youthful beauty and childbearing for women. All else is a time of becoming or a time of decline. Rather than looking at our lives like the seasons, where each has a richness that belongs to no other, we look at them like a flower that moves from bud to bloom to gradual decay and death. Only the time of bloom is seen as the fullness of life. Native people like Joe do not see life this way. They see it as a passage through spiritual seasons where we gain knowledge and richness as we pass from one season to the next. Only a person in winter has seen them all, so only a person in winter is granted the respect that comes with full spiritual knowledge. Far from being vestigial or in eclipse, the elders, who have lived through all of life’s seasons, are the honored ones, the crown jewels of the Native family.”

Kent Nerburn, “Voices in the Stones: Life Lessons from the Native Way”

III. “There were ideals and practices in the life of my ancestors that have not been improved upon by the present-day civilization.”

Luther Standing Bear

Luther Standing Bear

Mount Rushmore is a landmark with complicated history. The portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were carved onto the Black Hills rock, which is sacred to Native Americans, who were granted this territory in a treaty of 1868. The treaty read, “As long as the rivers run and the grasses grow and trees bear leaves, Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, will forever and ever be the sacred land of the Indians.” Like many promises bestowed on Native Americans, this one was also broken. After gold was found there, the Hills were immediately seized by the whites. The land is still under dispute.

Black Hills National Forest, via Wikipedia

Some thirty kilometres from Mount Rushmore another leader’s portrait is being carved onto rock – the statue of Crazy Horse, a Lakota warrior. The memorial was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, to be sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski, an American sculptor of Polish descent. Ziolkowski worked on the monument for thirty-six years, until his death. Throughout that time, he refused to take any salary. He carved his own epitaph, which can be viewed on the site:

“KORCZAK Storyteller in Stone
May His Remains Be Left Unknown.”

Crazy Horse Memorial

Rather paradoxically, throughout his short life Crazy Horse consistently refused to be photographed. He did not want anyone to know his face and yet his carved head is 27 metres high. Perhaps there is no other way of raising public awareness about the First Nations but to erect a giant memorial as a counterpoint to the existing White American one. But the Native soul is in actuality humble and alien to ostentation. This was beautifully expressed in a landmark book by Charles Eastman, who was a physician and an activist of Santee Dakota, English and French ancestry. In The Soul of the Indian: An Interpretation, he wrote:

“There were no temples or shrines among us save those of nature. Being a natural man, the Indian was intensely poetical. He would deem it sacrilege to build a house for Him who may be met face to face in the mysterious, shadowy aisles of the primeval forest, or on the sunlit bosom of virgin prairies, upon dizzy spires and pinnacles of naked rock, and yonder in the jeweled vault of the night sky!”

Charles Eastman

Quite different, much less conspicuous but not less powerful stone carvings are mentioned in another worthy book devoted to the spirituality of Native Americans, namely Voices in the Stones: Life Lessons from the Native Way by Kent Nerburn. He recalls a time when two of his Native American friends accompanied him to see ancient carvings on stones known as petroglyphs, located east of the South Dakota border. The two Indians, father and son, did not try to rationalize the Great Mystery; they did not strive to understand the meaning of the ancient carvings, but instead performed an ancient ritual that involved burning sage over the rocks.

Nerburn explains that In Native American tradition, everything has a voice, the whole nature calls out to us with the voice of the Great Mystery. The stones and the soil call to us with the voices of our ancestors who died or who were buried there. In some places, such as The Wounded Knee or in Auschwitz, the stones and the earth speak louder, so the more sensitive of us have to cover their ears.

In a striking passage from Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he remembers an encounter with an older of the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, who said to him:

“How cruel the whites are: their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by holes. Their eyes have a staring expression. They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something, they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want, we do not understand them, we think that they are mad.” I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad. “They say they think with their heads,” he replied.

“Why, of course. What do you think with?” I asked him in surprise.

“We think here,” he said, indicating his heart.”

When such two radically different visions and ways of living clash, disaster ensues. If stones were taken to represent atrocities committed on Native Americans, the Wounded Knee massacre would be the last stone thrown on top of a high mountain. A particularly distressing to me was the story of the Osage murders, of which I had been unaware. This nation was repeatedly stripped of their land until, finally, they managed to acquire some barren, unfriendly rocks in Oklahoma, which no one else wanted. The situation changed drastically when oil was discovered in the area and the Indians got extremely wealthy. As a result, they immediately became target of “theft, graft and mercenary marriage.” They were kidnapped, shot and poisoned often by those that posed as their friends or who were their spouses in the eyes of the law. In four years dubbed as the Reign of Terror sixty Osage Indians were murdered. Most of the murders were never prosecuted.

The words of Martin Luther King who said that he American nation was born in genocide express a shameful truth that cannot be hidden any longer. Historian Howard Zinn agrees:

“And so, Indian Removal, as it has been politely called, cleared the land for white occupancy between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, cleared it for cotton in the South and grain in the North, for expansion, immigration, canals, railroads, new cities, and the building of a huge continental empire clear across to the Pacific Ocean. The cost in human life cannot be accurately measured, in suffering not even roughly measured. Most of the history books given to children pass quickly over it.”

And yet, the Native Way is neither buried nor forgotten. Quietly, the wheel of history is turning again. As Nerburn puts it in the epilogue to his book, “We could destroy the First Peoples physically, but we could not erase their presence from our hearts. And so we hid them, buried them deep in our cultural psyche, just as we had buried so many of them in the earth they once had called their own. They became the shadow of our cultural guilt.“


At the Wounded Knee site

American Indians are so much more than the shadows. Their teaching us about the Great Spirit that unifies all opposites, bringing about the necessary reconciliation, appeals to ever increasing number of people. The indigenous values of respect for nature and inclusion are making a relentless resurgence. We are slowly realizing that domination has to be replaced by understanding, as Nerburn writes, “…your task in life is not to dominate, but to understand; to learn the rules of the universe and come into right relationship with them.”


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16 Responses to Native Americans: Stories in Stone

  1. ambfoxx says:

    You might like Linda Hogan’s book Mean Spirit, about the Oklahoma oil boom and the impact on Native people. I have read most of her books and loved them. She gets inside the history and culture of various tribes, not only her own, and her way with words is beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Native Americans: Stories in Stone – lampmagician

  3. Jeff Japp says:

    Hi Monika. Nice to see a post from you. Seems like it’s been a while.

    My wife and I toured the southwest on our honeymoon, camping and hiking. We visited some native American sites, the most impressive being Canyon de Chelly, which has the remains of Anasazi cliff dwellers:

    We had a Navajo guide, which made for a powerful experience.

    Hope all is well. — Jeff

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jeff. Yes, all is great. I’ve had a lot on my plate in a very positive way but I promised myself to have a post out at least once a month. This time I cut it fine.

      Your honeymoon sounds awesome and so non-cliché!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. wolfcircle says:

    This is a good use of symbolism by a Lakota in a 2014 Ted Talk:

    Liked by 1 person

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