A Confession of Theft on Stolen Land
The kind of crime that makes headlines in the local newspaper will tell you a lot about a place. In the New York of the 1980s, the Central Park jogger case and Bernie Goetz’s subway gunplay underscored the automatic fear young black men triggered in white city residents. Victorian London’s fixation on Jack the Ripper never exposed the killer but it did expose Victorian London’s prejudices and repressed prurience. This is a story about a crime that made headlines several summers ago in Rapid City, South Dakota. Like most people, you’d probably have a hard time pinpointing Rapid City on a map. I would too, if I hadn’t had occasion to visit a few times. What I mean to say is, don’t expect this crime to be any more notorious than where it took place. It’s not. There is a particular kind of criminal who doesn’t appreciate that what he’s done is a crime because the crime seems so inconsequential to him. In youth, many of us are this kind of criminal: the small-time vandal, the candy-bar shoplifter, the underage drinker. B told me this story, and that’s the kind of criminal B is.
The poet August Kleinzahler has called Rapid City “the heart of the heart of America.” Like most places in America, which it is nearly at the geographic center of, Rapid City is a place where the crimes that make headlines tend to be small crimes. Meanwhile, the bigger crimes, the ones with historical dimensions to them, go ignored. That’s not to excuse the small crime B committed. But the point of this story’s not to assign blame, posit justifications, or make excuses. The point of this story is to share a thing or two about Rapid City and, I think, a thing or two about America. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before we get to the story B told me, let me tell you about Rapid City and about the scene of the crime, a place called Storybook Island. Rapid City’s founders were, in the words of the 1938 WPA Guide for South Dakota, “disheartened prospectors” who, in the mid-1870s, left the gold-filled Black Hills without much gold and set up what they called the Hay Camp. Begrudgingly, they traded the pickax and sieve and the promise of rich lodes for pencils and draft paper and the modest prospect of town planning. The name of their settlement suggests they wouldn’t stay long, but they did.
Around the same time, an attorney from New York, Charles E. Rushmore, was on a horse-and-buggy tour of the hills that had bested the Hay Camp’s founders. At one point, he asked a traveling companion the name of a particularly striking granite cliff face. The way the WPA Guide tells it, the traveling companion’s response was either sycophancy or, more likely, what must have been considered a bad joke even in those days: “Why that is Mount Rushmore.” Forty or so years later, the Hay Camp had upgraded to Rapid City, and the area took to calling itself the “Gateway to Black Hills,” advertising itself to tourists with a nickname that traded on its proximity to the site of its founders’ failures. But to some boosters of the burgeoning tourism industry, natural majesty—the undulating greens and golds of the prairie, the swell of the hills darkened by Ponderosa pine—wasn’t enough to sustain interest. “Tourists soon get fed up on scenery unless it has something of special interest connected with it to make it impressive,” was how Doane Robinson, a South Dakota historian, put it. So, in 1923, Robinson conceived of Mount Rushmore, the idea being to blast into the landscape that “something of special interest” that would make western South Dakota “impressive.” It mattered little to Robinson, evidently, that the site ultimately chosen for Mount Rushmore already had something “of special interest connected with it.” Put another way, what started as a bad joke continued to seem like one, at least to a certain group of people.
In the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, the United States government had pledged that the Black Hills would be a part of the Great Sioux Reservation, which covered most of the western half of what is today the state of South Dakota. But gold and silver prospectors were already flooding the region, and by the time the Hay Camp was established, the federal government had decided not to evict white settlers from this part of the Great Sioux Reservation. Eventually, the government broke the Treaty altogether and much of the Great Sioux Reservation left Indian hands. The loss of the Black Hills was particularly galling because they’re home to a number of religious sites of deep importance to the local Lakota tribes. To the Lakota, Mount Rushmore was the Six Grandfathers—personifications of the sky, the earth, and the four cardinal directions—before its craggy visages were blown apart and replaced with white men who had been none too kind to the Indians. It’s fitting that Mount Rushmore’s sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, had just come off a gig carving a massive bas-relief in Georgia’s Stone Mountain to honor Confederate leaders. Borglum’s vision was of “a monument so inspiring that people from all over America will be drawn to come and look and go home better citizens.” Whether or not they go home better citizens, they certainly come and look. Today, more than three million people visit Mount Rushmore annually.
The tourist traps started to spring up even
before workers had finished reducing
the Six Grandfathers to the four presidents.
“The West,” the historian Donald Worster writes in Under Western Skies, “is characteristically a country of daydreams and fantasies, of visions and nostalgia, where people seem constantly to want to escape from the life they have made for themselves and to enter one more satisfying to the imagination.” In the shadow of Mount Rushmore, Rapid City’s denizens took to a daydream with particular currency in the Gold Rush West, a daydream that, on one interpretation, Mount Rushmore is the ultimate monument to—a daydream about making a buck. The tourist traps started to spring up even before workers had finished reducing the Six Grandfathers to the four presidents. There’s the imitation Wild West shopping mall at Wall Drug. There’s the Louis L’Amour kitsch and dingy, saloon-themed casinos in Deadwood. On Hangman Hill, in the middle of Rapid City, there’s Dinosaur Park, with its gigantic dinosaur sculptures that reflect either the paleontological misunderstandings of the 1930s or the cartoonish sensibility of its sculptor—a tyrannosaurus standing upright, like a dog on its hind legs, a nearby stegosaurus dragging its tail along the ground as if it were a child’s pool towel. (The cartoonish sensibility is probably the right explanation. The sculptor is otherwise known for his “Christ of the Ozarks,” in Arkansas, which can be found on Wikipedia under the heading “Colossal statues of Jesus” and whose physical appearance is often compared to a stick of butter or a milk carton.) There’s the Cosmos Mystery Area, a “mystery house” in the woods, built on a hill at an angle so as to trick the eye into believing that, as its roadside signage advertises, “the laws of nature have gone completely berserk.” Statues of 41 American presidents—a more direct nod to the reason for its existence than most tourist traps in the area—populate the street corners of downtown Rapid City: a fat Martin Van Buren on a park bench reading a newspaper; John F. Kennedy handing a young boy a model airplane; Richard Nixon reclining in a throne-like chair, pressing his fingertips together like The Simpson’s Mr. Burns. Although I could keep going, I’ll end the list here, with Storybook Island.
Storybook Island is what its proprietors call a “family fun park,” a kaleidoscope of characters torn from fairy tales, A.A. Milne books, Dr. Seuss stories, and Disney films and frozen in clumsily molded fiberglass. The Three Little Pigs stand smiling in front of their houses of straw, sticks, and brick, modestly dressed in long-sleeved shirts and overalls and blissfully unaware, it seems, of the naked wolf trying to slip down the brick house’s chimney, where, if the folk tale holds, he will die. Elsewhere, a massive, looming Yogi Bear resembling an oversized salt shaker inexplicably raises his hand, as if hoping to be called on in class. Statues of the main characters from The Wizard of Oz link arms in front of a sign that reads “Wizard of Oz,” possibly an acknowledgment that although they are approximately life-sized, they are decidedly not lifelike. Whether the park has, or has ever had, permission to reproduce these characters is not addressed in any of its official literature. What is addressed in its official literature is how the Rapid City Rotary Club opened the park on August 16, 1959, and how, on that one day in August, “10,000 visitors flooded through the tower gates.” That was a quarter of Rapid City’s population at the time. The park has been open every summer since, except for the summer of 1972, when water from the Canyon Lake Dam, not visitors, flooded through the tower gates. Over 200 people in Rapid City died in the flooding, and Storybook Island did not open.
The summer he took part in the crime he told me about, B, who was in his early twenties, was working at a Bible camp in the Black Hills. He had met a few folks in Rapid City, including N and D. Downtown Rapid City resembles one very large strip mall, and N lived in a squatted house on the edge of that strip mall, where the expanse of pavement, concrete, and one-story storefronts gives way to a patchwork of ranch-style homes built in a manner one might call mid-century cookie-cutter suburban. The house was a hub for a certain alternative social scene in Rapid City, and it was frequented by punks, goth types, and other, more conventional individuals who happened to enjoy the scene. One of the last stores just before the concrete ends and the manicured lawns begin is a liquor store. N worked there. D, on the other hand, was just passing through. He was from someplace out east but had gone to high school in Rapid City. Afterward, he had taken to a life of gutter punk adventure—hitchhiking across the country, hopping freight trains, working the soybean harvest in North Dakota. Rapid City was, at this point, one of his bases, a place to go when he ran out of money or when the vagaries of life on the road started to get to him or when he just wanted to trade momentum for inertia for a little while. On many weekends, B would drive his minivan through the Ponderosa pines, down out of the Black Hills, to spend the weekend away from religion and children, and with folks closer to his ilk. That was his routine, and that was what he did the weekend of the Storybook Island heist.
The South Dakota WPA Guide explains that “during the summer months Rapid City residents retreat into the mountains during the evenings and holidays to fish and rest.” Whether the destination and what people do there has or hasn’t changed, I don’t know. What I do know is the retreat persists. B found that Rapid City had gone quiet. Nobody was around, and there was nothing to do. As it often is, boredom was the catalyst for trouble.
“Right. Sorry. This is the same story
as stealing fairy tale creatures.
That happened before the sword fight.”
Here’s the story B told me. “This was way back in 2008, in July. N had these things they’d made into wooden swords—or I guess they were made of PVC pipes. They were homemade PVC pipe swords. High durability—you could really whack them against things. Anyway, it’s been a full night of drinking. The sun is starting to come up, and N and D just bust out these PVC pipe swords and start shadow fighting each other. And I pull out some makeshift weapon and we have this pitched melee battle in the backyard as the sun is rising.”
I interrupted him: “I thought you were going to tell me about Storybook Island.”
“Right. Sorry. This is the same story as stealing fairy tale creatures. That happened before the sword fight. We wound up going to—this was back when N was still working at the liquor store—we went to the liquor store and we all grabbed those little airplane shots because they don’t have inventory on those, I guess. I think we grabbed Crown Royals. We were all drinking Crown Royals out of these little airplane bottles. But we were already pretty drunk at that point. So there we were and D had figured out this way of getting in where you could just—the barbed wire goes around the whole way, but there’s this one point where the barbed wire stops, like around the gate.”
“Sorry, D had figured out how to get in where?”
“Storybook Island. That’s what I’m telling you about. Anyway, so you shimmy up the fence and squeeze between the two barbed-wire arms. There’s a separation between the barbed wire on top of the fence and the barbed wire on top of the gate. There’s got to be enough room so the gate can open. It’s almost like a right angle, where they’re diverging in two different directions from two different posts. It wasn’t very well made. It was probably a ten-foot fence, but it wasn’t too bad.”
B is a tall, thin, and agile fellow, as is N. D is a smaller guy and a little on the stocky side. To look at him, B said, you’d think he couldn’t scale a backyard fence. But all those years hopping freight trains and throwing himself into the beds of pickup trucks had made him nimble and resourceful.
“So we climbed over it, jumped in, sort of messed around, went to Christopher Robins’ treehouse.”
“See, there’s this three-story wood playhouse and, in front of it, there’s these statues of Christopher Robin, Eeyore, and Tigger. That’s basically it. It’s kind of a shitty park. Anyway, then we just parted ways, went off on our own for a while. I remember frolicking through the fairy tale world by myself in the moonlight, and I remember thinking: If there are any security guards here, they’re going to find this pretty odd. We wound up meeting again a little later near the Three Little Pigs. We decided to bury the third little pig—that’s the one who made his house of straw—under his house to confuse people. His house is like the size of a kitchen table or something and you just kind of lift it up. The pig wasn’t bolted down at that point. The pig is really heavy, though, heavier than you’d expect for fiberglass, so we couldn’t take him away with us. But we could shove him under his house and close the house back onto him. Like I said, his house is the straw one. But that’s deceiving. His house is also pretty heavy. They—the people who run the park—didn’t find him for a long time. It took quite a while. And then we went back to Christopher Robin, and we sort of heave-hoed him over the fence. We just threw him. And Robinson Crusoe—”
“Robinson Crusoe—doesn’t that seem not in keeping with the theme?”
“Yeah, it does. I told you it’s kind of a shitty park. Robinson Crusoe was pretty heavy, too, so it took one person on one side and one person on the other side of the fence to teeter-totter him over. It took two of us to carry Robinson Crusoe, but only one of us to carry Christopher Robin. Christopher Robin comes up to my waist. Robinson Crusoe’s kind of awkward because he’s in a sitting position, reading a book, and he’s about the size of a thirteen-year-old boy, like an adolescent child. So then we took them back to N’s house and got really drunk. It was just the three of us. I think that’s why we did it—because there wasn’t a whole lot going on. Later we had the sword fight. Oh, except we left Robinson Crusoe sitting on a motorcycle just around the corner from the park because it was too heavy to carry home. It was a Harley, I think. I was trying to take camera phone pictures of it, but it was too dark. That was disappointing. We brought Christopher Robin home. I woke up at some point after we’d gone to bed. I was already starting to get my hangover. I walked to the bathroom to pee, and I saw the silhouette of Christopher Robin in the hallway, where there aren’t any windows, and his pose—he’s banging a hammer to hit Eeyore’s tail back on, and he’s mid-hammer. And so there’s this silhouetted small person with a hammer in the hall when I came out of the bathroom, and I remember just being totally terrified.”
A few days later, a page-one headline in the Rapid City Journal read: “Oh, Pooh! Christopher Robin, straw pig taken from Storybook Island.” Robinson Crusoe had been discovered bestride his Harley, but what the paper called the “straw pig” was sufficiently well hidden that it remained undiscovered.
“When the people at the park realized this shit was stolen, they checked the cameras. I guess they had cameras but they just missed us. I was lucky I didn’t walk in front of a camera. But I don’t know. I don’t think the cameras had tape in them, if I’m going to be perfectly honest. I don’t think it’s that we weren’t on the tape, because we were all over the place. A lot of security cameras don’t work, you know. They’re just for show.”
Christopher Robin ultimately made his way back to Storybook Island.
“D and N took him out to a golf course in the middle of the night a week later, because they were worried about it being in the house, that somebody was going to find out. People came through that house all the time, so it could have become a problem. The paper reported that it was grand theft because the statues were worth like $17,000 or something. They wanted to get him off their hands. With these things, it’s only a matter of time before somebody figures out or tells.”
The crime that made headlines that summer in Rapid City ended more or less harmlessly. One person involved with the park complained to the Rapid City Journal about the timing—the theft came just before the Storybook Island’s annual fundraiser. Notably, she didn’t complain about diminished revenue. It seems just as likely to have been a happy coincidence from a fundraising point of view. The need to replace certain figures might well encourage more people to give. In any event, what you don’t see headlines about—and I know because I follow these things—is the bigger crime, the one that lets Storybook Island exist at all. The Rapid City tourist traps are the legacy of the theft of the Black Hills, which are a lot more important than some fiberglass statuary. No lesser an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court has found that theft to be a “taking,” even if by that the Court only meant the government had to pay the tribes for it, with interest. (The tribes still won’t accept the money.) One reason that crime doesn’t make headlines in Rapid City, of course, is that, like so many historical crimes, it’s come to seem banal. It’s written all over the local landscape. Places like Storybook Island and Dinosaur Park and Wall Drug are daily reminders of the crime for those who care to be reminded. But that same quality—the mundane everydayness—lets those who don’t care to be reminded or those who are merely indifferent pretend Storybook Island and Dinosaur Park and Wall Drug are funny novelties rather than the yields of a criminal act.
Crimes against the machinery of local capital make
headlines—as the Storybook Island caper did—but when
they run contrary to the smooth functioning
of that capitalist machinery, the moral crimes don’t.
And that’s another reason why nobody wants that bigger crime to make headlines—it fuels Rapid City’s economy. Crimes against the machinery of local capital make headlines—as the Storybook Island caper did—but when they run contrary to the smooth functioning of that capitalist machinery, the moral crimes don’t. (And even the Supreme Court called what the government owes the Lakota a “moral debt.”) The only equitable compensation for the theft of the Black Hills, the only appropriate sentence for the crime—and here the Supreme Court got it wrong—is their return to the Lakota, at least the large swaths that are federal land. That includes Mount Rushmore, and who could blame the Lakota if they chose to exclude tourists from the sacred site those tourists have desecrated on a daily basis for closing in on a century? The three million vacationers who arrive each year with dollars to spend are no small thing for a town of 70,000 scratched out of a vast expanse of prairie. If those tourists go, the Storybook Islands of Rapid City—and its economy—go with them. But that’s what Rapid City deserves, as do so many other places in America, whose legacy is one of major historical crimes for which there has yet to be an accounting. “It’s sad that anyone feels the need to steal,” wrote one commentator on a local newspaper’s website in response to a story about the theft B told me about: “Where has the morality gone? Not here, that’s for sure!” That’s the wrong crime, but it’s the right idea.
Art by Yvonne Martinez.