Where can you go to be immersed in presidential history, Native American memorials, and spelunking? This may come as a surprise, but South Dakota is the answer. With very little knowledge of South Dakota beyond Mount Rushmore, I embark with my family on a road trip to many historical sites. After visiting a grouping of National Parks and Monuments and a memorial in progress, I find there’s a rich collection of American history and culture in the southwestern corner of South Dakota.
Our first stop at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site recognizes the controversial atomic bombs tested and kept in remote areas during the Cold War. This missile site from the 1950s and 60s had United States nuclear forces prepared for an attack with missiles able to be deployed from underground silos. The missiles could travel to the North Pole in 30 minutes. In 1991, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed by Bush and Gorbachev to decrease the stockpiles of nuclear arms. In 1999, this historic site was established and the missiles were dismantled. Along with preservation this site also holds the controversy of nuclear testing. Being from Southern Utah, my family is well aware of this controversy and it leaves us with a sense of uneasiness, but an understanding that it’s a part of American history everyone must learn from.
The next stop along the green hillsides of South Dakota takes us to Badlands National Park. This mix of grassland and beige and rust sands mirrors the landscapes of the Southwestern United State’s mix of desert and mountains my family is accustomed to. The scientific explanation of this unique mixture retells of how millions of years ago, the Great Plains were covered in sea with Pierre shell, a sedimentary rock formation, at the bottom. As the land rose and forced water away, the climate began to cool. As the land began to dry out, it changed from forest to savannah to grassland to the park’s current state. Although I am not a scientist or archaeologist who explores this current state, if I were I would find the Badlands to be a fascinating combination of natural architecture and greenery décor.
Before heading to the famed Mount Rushmore, we decide to make a quick stop in Rapids city at Chapel in the Hills. Although I’m not religious, I always find a strong sense of spirituality in small churches with strong architectural details. This replica of the 850-year-old Borgund church, Borgund Stavkirke, in Norway, has beautifully carved symbols and dragons at its roof that make me marvel at its spirituality. The wood carvings continue to amaze and entertain me as I think on the meaning and symbolism of their Viking roots.
After heading out of Rapids City, we make our way to the monument made famous by the thriller “North by Northwest.” Begun in 1927, work on Mount Rushmore National Memorial was stopped during World War II in 1941. The artist Gutzon Borglum, used plaster faces to help sculptors with measurements and features of the four presidents. What is each president’s importance? George Washington for establishing and building a nation, Thomas Jefferson for writing the Declaration of Independence, Theodore Roosevelt for creation of the Panama Canal, and Abraham Lincoln for ending slavery and holding a nation together during the Civil War. Although some of these presidents and reasons for choosing them hold controversy, they are all recognized as presidents that shaped the development of the United States.
Mount Rushmore isn’t the only nod to historical figures in South Dakota. Nearby, the Crazy Horse Memorial, started in the 1960s, is being sculpted with a head and arm just barely visible in the mountains. Hearing a Native American man explain to a crowd nearby about the traditions and meaning of Pow Wows, I take a closer look at the monument being carved out of the mountain. I’m impressed with the features emerging from the stone. They begin to take on a new meaning of how Native Americans were treated by settlers and forced to abandon their lands. I’ve often asked my dad, a Native American Historian, what has become of them, what’s left for them now. It’s not an easy subject to discuss, my sister, and elementary school teacher finds. Perhaps the Crazy Horse Memorial will point the way.
The third longest cave in the world at 173 miles long guides us along our final destination. Inside the Jewel Caves National Monument, we’re led by collections of quartz, stalagmites, and stalagtites. With unmapped territory in this cave to still be discovered, we can’t stray too far, but there’s an abundance of stairways and cave paths to keep us entertained. Although the caves have been studied for years, starting with Albert and Frank Michaud in the early 1900s, there’s still path to be discovered. According to the National Park Service, cavers can spend up to four days exploring this long cave.
This pocket of a collection of National Parks and other memorials is an intricate compilation of spirituality, ancestry, and natural wonders. Don’t be misled into thinking South Dakota only has Mount Rushmore. With a memorial being built, one of the longest caves in the world, and a Norwegian church, you’ll see how much South Dakota has to offer in addition to National Parks.