Spirit of the Black Hills
June 1981

“Spirit of the Black Hills,” New Era, June 1981, 20

Spirit of the Black Hills

The dark, curved form of a mountain range rises up out of the dry flatlands of Wyoming and South Dakota. The name for this mountain range is ancient. The Lakota Indians (the Sioux are members of the Lakota tribes) called it Pahasapa, the Black Hills. And from a distance, out in the flatlands, the mountains do look black, but up close the Black Hills aren’t black; they’re green.

In the spring the warm winds come up from the lowlands, melting the deep covering of snow. The melted snow slips over the rich, dark earth, flowing down into mountain streams. The green comes with the water and the wind, and it comes in a thousand different shades and colors. The air then is fragrant with the smells of melting snow, decaying leaves and grasses.

The old Lakota saw this coming of spring, the changing of seasons, all the variations that come to the earth, as a mystery, a miracle. They watched them come with awe and wonder.

“When a man does a piece of work that is admired by all, we say that it is wonderful; but when we see the changes of day and night, the sun, the moon, and the stars in the sky, and the changing seasons upon the earth, with their ripening fruits, anyone must realize that it is the work of someone more powerful than man.” Mato-Kupwapi, a Santee-Yanktonai Sioux, said this in 1915, just before his death.

For the old Lakota the seasons were evidences of the Great Spirit. They believed that the earth and all living creatures were His creations. To them all life was sacred. To respect the earth and the living creatures on it was to show respect to the Creator.

“The Lakota was a true naturist—a lover of nature. He loved the earth and all things of the earth, the attachment growing with age. For him to sit or lie on the ground is to be able to think more clearly into life and come closer to kinship with other lives about him,” said Chief Luther Standing Bear, a member of the Sioux tribe.

The entire earth was honored and respected by the old Lakota, but the Black Hills were an especially sacred place. In the summer it was a place of refuge, where cool water ran in the streams even on the hottest days, where the mountains were forested heavily with oak, pine, and maple, and where the hills were covered deep with sweet grasses. It was a place abundant with life, a place to become close to the Creator.

“And all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44).

For Richard Piper, 16, a member of the Church in Rapid City, South Dakota, for a little more than a year, the Black Hills are also a place to become close to the Creator. His involvement in the Church and his closeness to nature have helped him better understand the meaning of his life and his relationship to his Father in Heaven.

“I love the hills,” he explained. “When you see how beautiful they are, you can’t help but feel the presence of God. I know that he cares. A lot of people in the Church have helped me. I know they care. The more I am involved in the Church, the more I understand and know where I’m going. It all fits together.”

The Lakota believed that being close to nature was important to being close to man.

“The old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too. So he kept his youth close to its softening influence,” said Chief Luther Standing Bear.

Living in the Black Hills, feeling kinship with nature, with each other, with our Father in Heaven, has brought the members of the Church there even closer to each other. There is a strong feeling of family in the wards and branches.

“There aren’t many members here in the Black Hills,” Irene Bastian, 17, from Rapid City, explained. “But they’re strong. I really rely on them, on the Church, on the Lord. They make a big difference in my life.”

The closeness of the members in the Black Hills has also had an effect on Rose Miles’ life.

“We’re all friends here,” she said. “It’s great having so many people to help you out. I wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for them.”

“We’re a small group here,” Barbara Weyland, 12, said. “In my school there are only a few Mormons. A lot of my friends, my non-Mormon friends, have different ideas from ours. I try to be a good example for them. I try to do the right things. Some of my friends have become interested in the Church; that takes time. They know that we try to perfect ourselves. They know we have high standards. They also know how important this is to me.”

The high standards of the Church, the closeness of the members, the Word of Wisdom, the effects of the gospel, all have made a good impression on the nonmembers who have come in contact with members of the Church in the Black Hills.

“My father is not a member,” Shelly Burnette, 15, said, “but because of the high standards of the Church and because of the example the members here set, he encourages me to attend. I don’t think I would be the same person if I didn’t have the Church. My friends who aren’t Mormons look up to me because of what I believe.”

Pahasapa, the Black Hills, the sacred hills—for the old Lakota the Black Hills were a sacred place, a place abundant with life, a place to become closer to the Creator. For the members of the Church who live there, the Black Hills are also a place to grow close to each other, to their brothers and sisters, and to their Father in Heaven. The feeling of being a member of the Church in the Black Hills was expressed by Sheila Merril, 16:

“There are so many good feelings here. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. The gospel teaches me how to live and the members here set the example.”

Mount Rushmore

The mountain-sized monuments of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt are carved in the sheer, granite face of Mount Rushmore. These world famous monuments to four heroes of American democracy were once only the dream of the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. He wanted to sculpt a monument that would represent the significance of the founding of the United States. He wanted a monument that would “personify the founding, expansion, and preservation of the Republic … whose size and significance would stir the patriotic and nationalistic impulses of every American heart.”

At a Boy Scout jamboree held at the Mount Rushmore site, Borglum spoke of his dream.

“A dream,” he told the young Scouts, “is just as important as writing your name in water, unless you have the courage to freeze it into form and make it intelligible so that people around you can understand and care for it.”

The Mount Rushmore site was dedicated for the monument in 1925. Borglum was 58 years old. In 1941 the monument was nearly finished when Gutzon Borglum died. His son Lincoln Borglum finished the project.

With years of hard work, determination, and courage, Gutzon Borglum carved his dream into the stone of Mount Rushmore, a monument to the freedom democracy gives to the individual.

Photos by Laird Roberts