Mount Rushmore is little more than an insult to Native Americans and it's a shame that this insult and the history of this monument is not really taught in our schools and especially at the monument itself. For the Lakota, the slashing of the stone exemplified disrespect in itself, but beyond that, there was something almost mocking about having four American presidents, all of whom had supported genocidal Indian policies, looking down at the Lakota people.
This article provides some of this history in addition to the Indian perspective of those memorialized.
Native American's Use of the Black Hills
The Black Hills have been considered sacred for millennia to many Native American nations from the United States and Canada. This geographic area contains some of the oldest mountains in the world in addition to several of the longest caves in the world.
The Black Hills in South Dakota was a Native American sacred area where many Indians conducted ceremonies such as the vision quest and the Sun Dance, which are used for making contact with the spirit world and obtaining spiritual power. For thousands of years, hot mineral springs were used for healing purposes. It was here that they gathered the sacred medicines-the plants-that they needed for healing and for ceremonial use.
The Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 guaranteed the Sioux ownership of the Black Hills, but after the discovery of gold, the federal government took back the mountains.
Although the Black Hills was, and still is, protected by treaty for the exclusive use of the people of the Great Sioux Nation, the federal government of the United States has allowed the complete destruction of the Black Hills primarily through mining, logging, tourism, and housing development.
Six Grandfathers Mountain
This theft of the Black Hills from the Sioux involved more than just taking the land: it also involved renaming it. All of the geographic features within the Black Hills had Indian names in 1877, but during the next couple of decades these names were replaced by non-Indian names.
The mountain known to the Sioux as Six Grandfathers became Mount Rushmore. The Sioux name had been an important part of their oral tradition and their association with the land. The new name reflected the American lack of concern for the history of the land. Instead of being the Six Grandfathers, the granite hill was named Mount Rushmore, after a New York lawyer looking after the mining interests of East Coast investors.
Carving up the Mountain
After the gold boon did not result in as much gold as they'd hoped, in 1923, Doane Robinson, a South Dakota state historian, came up with an idea to bring tourists (and their money) into the state. His idea was to commission a sculptor to transform one of the tall narrow, granite rock formations in the Black Hills into memorials of major figures from the mythic narrative of the American west. In Robinson's vision, he saw giant memorials to heroes such as George Armstrong Custer, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and perhaps the Sioux chief Red Cloud, which would stand along a new highway and lure tourists away from Yellowstone National Park.
Other than the theft and destruction of sacred lands, at least the original thought was to include Sioux chief Red Cloud. Unfortunately, this turned even darker…
Insult from the KKK
Gutzon Borglum was one of the most famous sculptors of the time, and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Borglum had been involved with the carving of a massive bas-relief monument to the heroes of the Confederacy at Stone Mountain, Georgia in an attempt to revitalize the Klan.
Robinson had initially envisioned the carvings on a series of geological features known as “The Needles,” but Borglum found them unsuitable for carving. The location he chose, Six Grandfathers Mountain, was loathed by naturalists who pointed out that it would desecrate the natural beauty of the Black Hills.
The sculptor, who saw the conquest of the Lakota (Sioux) and the theft of their sacred land as justifiable, dedicated the sculptures to the Expansion of the United States. From Borglum’s perspective, Manifest Destiny, an expression of racial superiority, was an expression of the rightful order of the world.
President Calvin Coolidge (and later Franklin Roosevelt, when it was completed) dedicated the monument to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, and made no mention of Indians in his dedication speech. The general public who read about the new monument, and the tourists who came to it, were oblivious to the fact that Mount Rushmore had once been Indian land, and that it was still sacred to them. Even today, our children are taught very little about this travesty.
Indian View of Those Memorialized
To have these four men who all played a significant part of the destruction of the culture of Indians in America memorialized was a huge slap in the face.
(For more information, see http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/1077 )
His presidency established much of the basis for the federal Indian policies. Like other non-Indians of this era, he viewed Indians as a vanishing people, or at least a people who at some time in the near future would cease to exist in the United States. Indians were to either die out, migrate, or become totally assimilated.
Prior to his presidency, while many Indians aided the Americans in their struggle for independence, in 1779, Washington sent 5,000 American troops under the command of General John Sullivan to destroy the villages of the Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca as punishment for aid which they had supposedly given to the British. Washington’s orders were for “the total destruction and devastation of [the Indian] settlements and capture as many prisoners as possible.”
The American forces made no distinction between those who had been Colonial American allies and those who had aided the British. The Americans destroyed 40 villages and 160,000 bushels of corn.
(For more information, see http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/2002_summer_fall/tj_views.htm
Despite being an American icon of freedom and personal liberty, Jefferson set the national policy toward Native Americans that would last for over one hundred years. He began the trail of tears which would destroy cultures and result in the reservation system.
Jefferson's attitude toward the Indian population of the United States seemed profoundly paradoxical. On several occasions he went out of his way to describe the Indian people of North America as a noble race who were the innocent victims of history. In many of Jefferson's observations it was clear he experienced an authentic admiration mingled with a truly poignant sense of tragedy about their fate as a people.
On the other hand, it was during Jefferson's presidency that the basic decisions were made that required the deportation of massive segments of the Indian population to land west of the Mississippi. The seeds of extinction for Native American culture were sown under Jefferson.
(For more information, see http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january_february_2013/features/lincoln_no_hero_to_native_amer042037.php )
The majority of his policies proved to be detrimental to Indians. Rampant corruption in the Indian Office (later renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs), continued unabated throughout Lincoln’s term and well beyond. In many cases, government-appointed Indian agents outright stole resources that were supposed to go to the tribes.
In other cases, the Lincoln administration simply continued to implement discriminatory and damaging policies, like placing Indians on reservations. Beginning in 1863, the Lincoln administration oversaw the removal of the Navajos and the Mescalero Apaches from the New Mexico Territory, forcing the Navajo to march 450 miles to Bosque Redondo—a brutal journey. Eventually, more than 2,000 died before a treaty was signed. Several massacres of Indians also occurred under Lincoln’s watch.
“This continent had to be won. We need not waste our time in dealing with any sentimentalist who believes that, on account of any abstract principle, it would have been right to leave this continent to the domain, the hunting ground of squalid savages. It had to be taken by the white race.”
- Theodore Roosevelt
The Indian Rights Association lauded the new President:
“No man in the country has a fuller or more practical sympathy with the Indians than President Roosevelt, nor a better understanding of their conditions and needs.”
While Roosevelt treated Indians with more respect than every other president, his fundamental guiding principle can be summarized by this statement he gave during a lecture in Boston, Massachusetts, in which he defends the government’s treatment of Indians (see above right):
(For more information, see http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/1093 )
If the Faces were Changed
The Indians may have their own version of who should be memorialized here (were they to carve up the mountain in the first place, which they wouldn't). A few leaders that have been mentioned are Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Red Cloud, and Ben Black Elk.
It is this picture, in fact, that inspired this article.
The Shrine of Hypocrisy
From the viewpoint of American Indian Movement and many Native Americans, Mount Rushmore should be considered as the Shrine of Hypocrisy rather than as the Shrine of Democracy. Mount Rushmore symbolizes to them the treaties broken by the United States.
The above is the nice way of saying it. Personally, Mount Rushmore was nothing but a big "screw you" to the Native Americans. The land should be given back to the Indians and all tourist profits above operating costs should be paid to those who own the land.
Island Native on September 11, 2017:
It's year 2017 and the Confederate statue toppled. Three years after this was posted. It's beginning.
This is a great piece! Thank you.
MiaKulpa on October 21, 2016:
such utter crap
BirdThatSteals on July 06, 2015:
Can we really reverse the racism now though? That would be hypocritical. EVERY culture should be celebrated and remembered. Even the ones whose ancestors have made indecent choices. Waisichu are not always white of skin...
mixed race on September 20, 2014:
Wonderful article and about the first comment...you are right, natives never thought that they owned land...a land was for every human... but europeans brought their rules and hypocritical thoughts about the land.
HighPacheChief on August 01, 2014:
It won't be there forever. As whites are recessively dying out (geneticswise)...so will their monuments selfishly CLAIMING the planet. If an American Indian faction doesn't 'take them down'...an African American or Mexican one will dynamite the shit down. It's only a matter of time! NO hypocritical, slave-owning, genocide-perpetrating monuments left...ANYWHERE (MAYBE a few statues here and there for remembrance sake)!! Indigenous people ARE reclaiming the planet...or its stewardship...as we NEVER treated it like we OWNED it...like "they" do!!
joey finley on May 15, 2014: