Jen Heuson: Hearing the Hills

Hearing the Hills: An Acoustic Encounter with South Dakota’s Black Hills

The Black Hills, nestled along the western border of South Dakota, is a mythic place. Home to the Badlands, Wounded Knee, Wall Drug Store, Deadwood, Sturgis, and Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorials, the Black Hills draw over two and a half million visitors each year. [1] The Hills are also a location of political struggle, the long-time battleground between the native Lakota and the United States government. The 1874 discovery of gold by General Custer and his Seventh Cavalry Regiment sparked a flurry of interest in the region. First gold miners, then settlers, and finally tourists transformed the area into a “natural playground and sanitarium.”[2] As early as 1892, six to seven trains a day brought tourists from eastern cities to bathe in the curative hot springs of the southern Black Hills.[3] But just as visitors flocked to the Hills, the Hills seemed to seep its borders, to flood the world with tales of its wildness. Today, this 50 by 70 mile swathe of land is a key backdrop for popular imagination of the American West and of American history, culture, and identity.

More than a heritage destination, the Hills are a crucial space for the performance of American-ness, a space where residents, visitors, museum operators, Hollywood films, historical events, roadside sweet clover and more … all coalesce to generate a sensual production, a sensual experience. It is this experience – a complicated nexus of bodies, technologies, ancient rocks, tall tales, and, yes, even bison growls – I offer here. I offer it in an essentially acoustic form. I ask you to listen … to hear the Hills, to hear the Hills as I have heard them … as I hear them even now. This is a hearing informed by the region’s tragic past – by the faint whispers of conquest, extraction, extinction, assimilation – and by its many possible futures, futures that hint at new forms of American politics. But, this is also a hearing that is deeply personal and sensorial. It is a hearing embedded in the land, embedded in centuries of family history, of the mixing of peoples and places. It is a hearing that glides indistinguishably from the hard surfaces of outside to the softest entangled tissues of what cannot be seen, of what remains forever inside. What I offer here is an acoustic encounter. It is an encounter produced through sensation, imagination, memory, and history. It is an encounter that relies heavily upon fieldwork, upon listening and looking and sensing in the field, and upon mediation, the mediation of microphone, of recorder, of film, of computer. But more than all this, it is an encounter that asks you to engage scholarship in a new way … to engage it as experience, as tale, as hearing.

Please wear headphones.
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[1]National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, “Park Statistics,” Mount Rushmore National Memorial, http://www.nps.gov/moru/parkmgmt/statistics.htm.
[2]John McClintock, Pioneer Days in the Black Hills: Accurate History and Facts Related by One of the Early Day Pioneers (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939), 7.
[3]Michael Schumacher, “Seeking the Hills: A New Exhibit Explores Mountain Travel,” South Dakota Magazine 23:2 (July/August 2007), 70.


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