What Is Indigenous Power?

Of all the striking monuments you might encounter while driving an overstuffed minivan west across the United States, few leave quite as intense and complex an impression as the Crazy Horse Memorial — the vast unfinished carving of the Oglala Lakota warrior, whose face emerges as an 87-foot-high profile from the side of Thunderhead Mountain in the Black Hills, about 17 miles from Mount Rushmore.

Rushmore is complex in its own way, of course: a gleaming monument to the heroes of the American Republic, sunwashed by day and lit up in the twilight, that doubles as a darker monument to the Republic’s sins, set amid land held sacred by its native inhabitants that was promised to them by treaty and conquered unjustly soon thereafter.

But Rushmore’s duality still feels simpler than the layers of significance and controversy around the monument to Crazy Horse. The unfinishedness alone makes the project fascinating: At present it’s mostly just the face, an immense profile looming above a terraced-looking rock formation that’s supposed to become a charging horse. Depending on your perspective it can seem like a monument to persistent American ambition (in its final form it will be one of the largest statues in the world) or a symbol of our national sclerosis (since Rushmore was completed in about a decade-and-a-half and the Crazy Horse Memorial began in 1948 and has no clear completion date).

Then there is the question of what the statue actually memorializes. Is it an answer to the white presidential faces just a short (if winding) drive away, a symbol of Native American resilience and power? That’s how it was envisioned by the Lakota elder who originally commissioned it, and the complex of tourist enticements around the mountain is presented as a shrine to Native culture and tradition.

But the monument also feels, at certain moments, more like a shrine to its presiding genius, the Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski — a figure of undoubted brilliance and a certain megalomania who died in 1982 and was buried in the tomb he built for himself at the base of the mountain. This left the (privately funded) project in the hands of a foundation steeped in Ziolkowski family influence — which means that when you pay your entrance fee, it’s the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation that gets the revenue, and when you drop some money on Native American jewelry in the gift shop, you’re funding a for-profit entity called Korczak’s Heritage, Inc.

Which in turn is just a layer atop the more fundamental question of whether this way of celebrating Indigenous heroism actually does appropriate honor to Crazy Horse or the Lakota way of life. In a rich 2019 New Yorker article on the memorial and its critics, Brooke Jarvis quotes Indigenous voices on both sides. On the one hand, people who love the monument’s scale and brazen counterpoint to Rushmore, the claim it makes on American history. On the other, people who consider it sacrilege to carve up sacred geography to honor a warrior who in his own life declined to be photographed and who asked to be buried in an unmarked grave.

You could distill this controversy to a still-simpler question: For its 21st-century future, what kind of power does Indigenous America want? Is it power within America as we have known it — the power to keep Crazy Horse (and Sitting Bull and Red Cloud and Chief Joseph and Sacagawea …) on the same list of American heroes as the Rushmore presidents, the power to draw crowds that rival any other great American tourist attraction, the power to interweave the Native story with stories of colonists and immigrants, the way this week’s vision of the crowded Pilgrim table tries to do?

Or is it fundamentally a different kind of power, a power against America as we have known it — a power of resistance rather than competition or integration, Indigenous Peoples’ Day against Columbus and all the other European discoverers, sustainability against industrial capitalism and its discontents? Is the Indigenous answer to Mount Rushmore a statue of Crazy Horse emerging at a gallop from mountain, or just the mountains themselves, sacred and untouched?

It’s fair to say that the second kind of power seems more attractive nowadays. The idea of power-within seems too entangled with the old crimes of forced assimilation, or the 1950s-era image of American Indians as sports mascots and television Tontos. The idea of power-against seems better suited to an age of white-progressive historical guilt, general pessimism about the American project, alienation from the natural world, despair over climate change.

Thus “Indigenous Continent,” the much-praised new account of the long struggle for North America by the Finnish-born historian Pekka Hamalainen, ends with a hint that Indigenous power will outlast the American experiment — “on an Indigenous time scale, the United States is a mere speck” — via “the primary Indian response to colonialism: resistance.”

In an Atlantic cover story from May 2021, the Ojibwe writer David Treuer argued that an appropriate restitution for dispossession would be to give Indigenous tribes control over the national park system, effectively assigning them a permanent role as skeptics of development, stewards of the unspoiled Earth.

On the Paramount Network’s hit series “Yellowstone,” the Native rival to the show’s ranching-family protagonists envisions using casino money to retake a valley for his people and then restore a pastoral or nomadic way of life. “On land that hasn’t been ravaged by man,” he tells a white interlocutor, “you don’t need to buy food. You just go find it. You don’t buy clothes, you make them. And you don’t build houses, you seek shelter. You live with the land. Not on it.” As for the American way of suburbs and concrete and development, it’s foredoomed: “You know someday this planet’s going to shake your world off its back like dirty water.”

But the attractions of this vision also come with certain problems. It risks entrenching a conception of the Indian as the perpetual American outsider, the martyr to modernity awaiting an apocalyptic vindication. It replaces the Noble Savage archetype with a Noble Steward alternative that can seem similarly flattening. And in progressive circles it often condenses itself to the empty platitudes of land acknowledgments.

More important, it may elide the ways in which power within America is still the most tangible form of power available to tribal communities, especially in an age of greater legal and political sympathy for Indigenous rights. This starts with the unusual power (which need not only cash out in the form of casino gambling!) afforded by sovereignty over several hundred reservations spread across the wealthiest nation on the planet. It also includes more specific claims, like the delegate’s seat promised to the Cherokee in the House of Representatives or the interest-accruing funds awarded by U.S. courts as compensation for the Black Hills theft (which still await some negotiated dispensation because the tribes — understandably — don’t want to give up their claim to the land itself).

Linked to these legal claims is the larger Native claim to full participation in the contemporary American story, which may not be satisfied by typecasting as anticolonial resisters or stewards of the natural world. You see a broader set of desires at work, for instance, throughout FX’s successful series “Reservation Dogs,” about Native teenagers in Oklahoma, where the idea of escaping the reservation life by going west to California jostles with the pull of tribal traditions and family loyalty. Both impulses are taken seriously: The characters have a distinctive pathos, a different-from-the-immigrant experience, but they also have a claim on the wider American inheritance of troublemaking and rebellion and “go West, young man.” They’re the heirs of the Trail of Tears, but also of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

A similar feeling attends a careful reading of Hamalainen’s “Indigenous Continent,” which labors to reclaim the great achievement of Native North America: the long centuries in which Native Americans were able to constrain, trammel and often defeat outright the expansionist European powers, while building remarkable empires of their own.

In keeping with contemporary pieties, the book sometimes tends to moralize on behalf of Native Americans while celebrating even their most imperial achievements, contrasting their light-footprint empires with the white man’s heavy-handed colonialism. Given the violence with which, say, the Comanche enforced their rule, this can feel at times like an overcorrection, the mirror image of an older triumphalist, written-by-the-victors style of American history. (I recommend Peter Cozzens’ 2016 history “The Earth Is Weeping,” which focuses on the struggle for the American West, for an account that works harder to emphasize crimes and follies on both sides.)

But precisely by evoking that older style, with its canny empire builders and stalwart pioneers, Hamalainen ends up casting his Native protagonists in roles that are less exotic or pre-modern or anticolonial and more familiarly American. His Indigenous characters are conquerors, traders, explorers, migrants, sometimes enemies of the Spanish, French or English and sometimes partners, full participants in the struggle for a continent rather than just martyrs to its conquest.

If you built a Native American monument based on his book alone, in other words, it might look a bit like Crazy Horse emerging from the mountainside at full gallop. And if you imagined a national holiday based on its story, it would be one that placed its Indigenous characters on equal footing with all their fellow Americans, sharing the same great continental drama — even the same table.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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