I have visited Mount Rushmore trice, the first two times in the summer while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and the third 25 years apart when on a family driving tour of the US national parks in 2004. Like any curious foreign tourist, I just wanted to see interesting places along scenic road trips around the United States. In South Dakota tourists need to stop at the Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. To me, Mount Rushmore is just a monument of four US presidents carved out of the stony mountain top, and it was done without respect for the mountain and natural beauty of the surrounding Black Hills.
American history is full of stories of environmental destruction - cutting down trees, clearing lands for settlers, heavy logging industries, etc. But that was done in the name of economic development and human settlement, and modern America has redeemed themselves by championing environmental protection with innovative ideas such as the creation of national parks and large-scale reforesting. The sin of early environmental onslaught can be forgiven though not forgotten. But to carve four gigantic human faces out of a towering mountain top, and destroyed the sacred beauty of the mountain, is not to be forgiven nor forgotten, certainly not by the Oglala Sioux native American nation who own and worship the sacred Black Hills.
What about the faces of the four great white men on top of Mount Rushmore?
Beginning from left to right: George Washington, a slave-owner who led the great American revolution into victory; Thomas Jefferson, also slave-owner and a racist who wrote ‘all men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence; Theodore Roosevelt, the man who was no friend of native Americans in his early public career; furthest right is Abraham Lincoln, the man who won the civil war and emancipated slavery, united the country, and made it truly ‘the United States’ of today. These four men of history were not responsible for having their faces carved out leaving a big ugly scar on the mountain. They had died long before the Mount Rushmore National Memorial project started in 1927.
What about the native Americans of the Sioux Nation who own and worship their sacred mountain?
In their book 'The National Parks: America's best Idea, An Illustrated History'* Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns talks to Gerard Baker, a native American who was the first American Indian to be the superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Baker, who is of the Mandan-Hidatsas tribe, has this to say:
Question: And now you're the superintendent at Mount Rushmore. That would seem to represent a big change from those earlier times."
Answer: "I'm the first American Indian to be the superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and I was told, 'There's ('re?) not many Indians going to be there, because they have a different feeling about the place.' And so the first week I was there, I was out walking around, looking at the visitors and asking them questions, just viewing everything, and I saw an American Indian family, I was so excited, I went up there, shook hands with them, we had a very good discussion--who they were, where they were from--and then they asked me, 'what do you do here?'
And I said, 'Well I'm the superintendent.' And they all burst out laughing. They didn't believe me at all. They thought I worked in maintenance or they thought I was a groundkeeper or something. And I said, 'No, really, I am the superintendent.' And they all started laughing again. I actually had to take them back in my office and prove to them that actually, yes, I am an Indian and I am in charge of Mount Rushmore. And they were so proud of that fact.
And it opened their eyes, as well. We started talking about their daughter, who can come into the Park Service and who can be a ranger and who can work her way up and so forth."
Question: "What about Mount Rushmore and its unique place in the complicated story of America?"
Answer: "There were two places in my career that I told my family that I would never work. One of them was Little Big Horn and the other was Mount Rushmore. And I have been superintendent at both of them now. Coming to Mount Rushmore--it was very challenging to accept the job, because for Indian people it means the desecration of the sacred Black Hills; it means the losing of the Black Hills; a lot of negative things.
But I'm proud of the fact that I am the first American Indian to be superintendent there, telling the freedom that America has to offer and the democracy that we have in America. When I first came, I'd go out in the park and I would watch people. They would look at those four presidents and they would get teary-eyed. This place draws emotion. And it should. But we were only telling half the story.
We need to look at all the stories, not only talk about those four presidents and what they did as far as freedom is concerned. we also have to start talking about what happened to everybody. Mount Rushmore gives us that opportunity. We're promoting all cultures of America. That's what this place is. For goodness sake, this is Mount Rushmore. It's America.
I'm talking about all of America because that's what we represent. The parks don't belong to me. They don't belong to you. The parks belong to America. And what is America made up of? So in order to tell our story, we need to do a better job of getting the multitude of cultures into our story. We need national parks to have people--especially our kids--understand what America is. America's not sidewalks. America's not stores. America's not video games. America's not restaurants. We need national parks so people can go there and say, 'Ah, this is America.' "*
From the point of view of native Americans, Mount Rushmore is sacred land not to be desecrated, but it had been by those who defaced the sacred Black Hills and made it a monument of the four great white men who spoke with forked tongue. And today the sacred Black Hills is only a place for curiosity for tourists who have no time to probe deeper to the history of discontent America.
From the point of view of being a National Memorial which is part of the National Park Service, Mount Rushmore is a place specially for Americans of all colours and ethnicities to come and contemplate deeply into the heart of America, travel back in time into the early days of Crazy Horse, leader of the Oglala Sioux, and General George Armstrong Custer of the Seventh Cavalry, to search for the true spirit of the great vast land--from sea to shining sea--the big country that is home to all immigrants who came to make different histories of America, and in the process, induced suffering over the natives who had lived and tilled their lands long before the discovery of the so-called 'new world'.
In contemporary political context, Mount Rushmore is not to be the place to sow the seeds of disunity within the united states. It is not the place for political campaign against one another. Particularly, not on the 4th of July!
Since the completion of the project in 1941 Mount Rushmore has been a place to see and a must-tourist-stop for everyone. However, the full history of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills was never properly conveyed to students of history and general tourists alike.
Human being is a flawed species, and the four great men in American history are no exception. The four faces on Mount Rushmore have different stories to tell and passing-by visitors can not possibly know by just looking up the mountain and snapping a picture. They all have prominent roles, good and bad, in American history. But they do not need to show their sculptured faces on the sacred mountain. Their stories should be told in history books and discussed in classrooms and in public discourses.
4 July 2020
Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns,
The National Parks: America's best Idea, An Illustrated History,
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010, pp.58-59