We are in South Dakota on the Missouri River to celebrate the 4th of July. Here my sister and her family have a nice vacation house and a large garage for their boat. There are 50 or so houses here, all owned by people with boats who come here in the summer for the purpose of enjoying the Missouri river. It is typical Americana — golf carts driven by people of all ages (including my seven year old son) going on dirt roads, alcohol flowing freely (not for children!), fireworks, and a general party atmosphere.
To get here in a rented car I was able to drive “green.” We have a flex fuel Chevy Malibu, so we can load it with E85, a fuel that is 85% ethanol. Of course, boating at the river is a complete waste of fuel, but that’s life in America. Last night a storm rolled in at about 11:00, but before then fireworks were being shot and there was a festive atmosphere.
This place, near Wagner and Pickston South Dakota, is right next to an Indian Reservation. It’s a bit ironic, celebrating independence day right next to a place that represents perhaps the greatest crime committed by the US – defeating the native peoples of the region and stealing their land. It was a low tech holocaust, with whole tribes being wiped out by a people who considered them inferior, thinking they were doing God’s work expanding the nation.
When we leave here, we’ll drive through the poorest county in the US, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to head to the Badlands and Black Hills. The Black Hills was Lakota Sioux holy land, and originally the US told the Sioux they could keep them forever. Then gold was found there, and the materialistic folk of European stock decided to break that promise. We’ll visit Mt. Rushmore, a monument to the US, and the site where they are building a monument to Crazy Horse. The Crazy Horse monument is being built without government support — but when it’s finished it’ll be more grand than Mt. Rushmore.
To be sure, the current generation is not responsible for the actions of the past, yet as we celebrate the independence of the 13 colonies from Great Britain, I can’t help but ponder the paradoxes of US history. We consider ourselves a great democracy trying to project and even expand freedom, yet the descendants of those defeated to expand this country live in abject poverty on tracks of land given to them at the end of that expansion. Even that is paradoxical — the reservations are ghettos of a sort, separated from the white culture, with high levels of alcoholism and unemployment. Yet to eliminate them would be to break treaty obligations and take away the last vestiges of Sioux sovereignty.
As I see the large pick up trucks hauling boats to launch into the river for recreation, I think of all the fuel being wasted, as we Americans relax and consume food and drink. (And as I write this everyone is watching a hot dog eating contest…that symbolizes something).
Of course, I’m participating in all this. We’re driving (albeit with E-85) to the hills next week, and we’re going to be on the boat enjoying the river. I’ll consume food and alcohol, and I’m certainly part of this culture I’m critiquing. Last night I enjoyed partying with folk I just met, including an army recruiter (who was upset when I told him I supported Obama) and other typical Americans, consuming and celebrating.
And now we’re about to go out on the boat. Even as I enjoy being a part of this era in history, cognizant of both the environmental cost and economic damage being done, as well as how this moment is made possible by historical violence and injustice, I celebrate what America stands for. In fact, the greed and violence of our culture is not something to be denied, it’s something to overcome. We can’t undo the damage done to people like the Lakota Sioux, but we can try to build a better future based on ideals we’ve rarely lived up to, but which we still hold dear. We’re an imperfect people in imperfect times, but we can at least be honest about our actions, and try to make small steps to live up to those ideals put forth 234 years ago by the founders.
So to me independence day is not about celebrating the past, but trying to build a better future. And we’re getting ready to head to the river for a day of boating, so I have to publish this now, with no time to proof read