First Nations Sculpture Garden: Rapid City and the Politics of Stolen Ground

Perpetually frustrated for what passes as journalism in the Rapid City Journal (RCJ), I recently submitted a letter to the editor regarding the 17 March 2013 story titled “Spokeswoman: Native sculpture garden location is not up for debate.” Although I submitted my letter to the editor several days ago, I have received no response for the RCJ (nor any response for previously submitted letters to the editor). So, I will expand upon the 200 word essay I wrote. Original essay below.

The “spokeswoman” in the March 17 article about the proposed Native sculptor garden is preeminent Native scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn of many important works on Native issues, particularly for the Lakotayapi and the Dakotayapi. Many commenters have taken issue with Cook-Lynn’s statements about the park not being “a place to take little white third- and fourth-graders to learn about history” and also not considering another location for the park.

First, as evident with Canada’s recent #idlenomore movement, the burden of “proving” that the long history of federal treaties made with the U.S. nation-state have been violated and created the socioeconomic devastation and land dispossession for Natives has long since passed. Read any book on Native history and you will find the proof you need.

Second, if education is merely learning that history, then it has failed. Education is pointless if it maintains the status quo and does not challenge settler society to understand their role in perpetuating these continuing conditions.

So why should this park continue forward? Cook-Lynn makes the point: to tell settler society “who we are and who we’ve been.” Consider that a gift because, frankly, Natives do not owe settler society much more.

The “spokeswoman” of the story happens to be Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, preeminent Dakota scholar and writer from Crow Creek, SD. The RCJ overshadows Cook-Lynn’s lifelong achievements as a Native scholar with her insistence on the creating the park at the location that was historically Native trust land and the tagline: “It’s not a place to take little white third- and fourth-graders to learn about Native history.” Many commenters and critics of the park’s location called foul for the latter statement as divisive and reverse racism. Yet, these critics of Cook-Lynn’s statements fail to see the larger picture and concept of building a sculpture garden on this historically contested ground within a historically contested border town.

As I have thought over the definitions of a border town, I have come to the conclusion that border towns like Rapid City do not easily fit the common perception of how a border town functions and manifests itself. First of all, Rapid City or Mni Luzahan sits at the heart of the 95 million acres of treaty designated territory under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that was never legally ceded to the United States. Therefore, Mni Luzahan is not necessarily “near” a Native community, it is occupying space in the heart of Lakota Territory. Second, the Native population has historically been displaced within the city limits on several occasions, whether it was through forced removal as Cook-Lynn points out or through natural causes such as the 1972 Rapid City Flood.


Strangely, the Lakota do in fact retain some trust land benefits and recognition throughout the history of forced removal in the form of a section 8 housing district known as Lakota Homes in the North Rapid City (which has also become an historically large Native neighborhood). Nonetheless, Rapid City Natives remain dispossessed and disenfranchised. More than half of Rapid City’s Native population live in poverty, as well as 48% of  65,000 of South X‘s Native population living below the poverty threshold. This makes Rapid City the poorest city in the U.S. among other cities significantly populated with Natives, as well as South X leading the U.S. with five of the top ten poorest counties in the U.S.–all which are located on Native reservations.

This information dispels the myth of reservations being concentrations of poverty and opens up Rapid City for scrutiny, something Cook-Lynn stresses. The location of the proposed sculpture garden would serve “as a powerful symbol”, being on land Native Rapid City residents were forcefully removed from.

As a former resident of Rapid City and having actually lived two blocks from the location of the proposed sculpture garden, I find it ironic that there is question about the proposed location. The location itself is at Halley Park, which is situated like an island sandwiched between two major roads. The park consists only of few landscaping details, trees, and a trimmed lawn. Otherwise, it sits in a prominent downtown location without really being used for anything.

It seems, however, that the location, being unused city land and never formally ceded Indian trust land, would, indeed, be a symbolic location for the proposed sculpture garden. Also, the proposed busts of prominent Dakota and Lakota people includes Vine Deloria, Jr., Black Elk, Oscar Howe, and Charles Eastman. Four more busts have yet to be determined, but hopefully they will include Dakota women like Zitkala Sa.

Lastly, what Cook-Lynn has been criticized the most for her statement that the park would not function as a place to take little white third- and fourth-graders. Most commenters and critics feel that Cook-Lynn’s statements were threatening and racist towards little white children, yet they fail to see the irony in such statements after critics proposed moving the park’s location to Founder’s Park. Cook-Lynn’s statements, however, do reflect a criticism of how Native people and their history in Rapid City is up for grabs as something that should be made consumable for the masses, while never requiring Native history to hold or be told with its own dignity. Cook-Lynn’s criticism is that Native history cannot be held to the standard of mainstream settler society and that is palatable, sanitized, and made safe for the consumption of little children. That is not the point and puts an unfair burden on Native people to reconstruct and fit their history into narratives of equal rights and liberal multiculturalism, which given the gross disparities among Natives and settlers in Rapid City only further perpetuates Native dispossession and erasure. This proposed park, rightly so, upsets liberal settler colonial sensibilities. So don’t bring your children to a rated-R movie.

Cook-Lynn is a courageous Dakota Winyan who is made out to be an angry racist Indian woman, unwilling to budge or compromise. This characterization of female Native intellectuals is very condescending. Ask yourself how has the RCJ portrayed Native women in its news coverage? In this instance a highly honored and recognized Dakota intellectual is referred to as merely a “spokeswoman.” Does settler society have typecast parts for how Native women appear and are recognized with the public? In this instance, Cook-Lynn is portrayed as an angry woman of color who is against compromise and undermining the white liberal sensibilities of Rapid City residents. Yet, much more is at stake.

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