Convergence Points: Mountain Carvings, Racial Politics, and Contested Memory
Sociology University of California, Santa Barbara Goleta, CA, USA
How do historical memorials facilitate contested knowledge of race, place, and memory? Drawing on fieldwork at Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorials, I explore how discourses of history and racial politics play out through local debates and interactions between visitors and memorial employees. Two giant mountain carvings honoring U.S. presidents and a famous American Indian leader, respectively, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse draw millions of tourists each year to the Black Hills in South Dakota (USA). The memorials also represent the contestation embedded in the Black Hills, a region with a long history of land conflict between the Great Sioux Nation and the United States and a place where people negotiate acutely with the contemporary consequences of colonization and settlement. This is a particularly relevant time to study contested knowledge at these memorials because Mount Rushmore recently hired its first American Indian superintendent. His presence and his efforts to include Native history at Mount Rushmore have sparked local debates and on-site dialogue over whose history should be represented in both memorial spaces. Like other sites of commemoration, these memorials allow people to make sense of and debate local, national, and global histories, and can be best understood as complex spaces through which social and political struggles play out.
Building upon interdisciplinary work on memory, place, and race, I offer the concept of a convergence point to illustrate how these memorials are forums through which multiple histories, ideologies, and interests intersect, some serving nationalist and consumerist impulses, some invoking multicultural ideals, and some challenging racist tropes and universal narratives of the past. To make sense of this convergence, I look at how the politics of remembering emerges on the ground, particularly between Native employees and non-Native visitors, with the memorial spaces providing venues for negotiating relationships across racial lines and for facing an ugly history through social interaction. These social exchanges, and the ideas and interests they reflect and draw upon, speak to the complicated ways we collectively reckon with the past, negotiate unequal relationships across lines of difference, and develop knowledge about the places that matter to us.