Those planning a trek to South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore these last several weeks of summer will be among 3 million who annually visit the world-famous sculptures of U.S. presidents. Most will swell with patriotic pride as they stand on a marbled deck under flowing flags at the “shrine to democracy.”
The place brings Americans “face to face with a rich heritage we all share,” says the National Park Service.
The carved visages are iconic Americana, appearing in a gazillion media photos and books and travel features, in advertisements and promotions, on U.S. postage stamps in two eras, and on South Dakota’s license plate (“Great Faces. Great Places.”).
But the back story of Mount Rushmore is hardly a rich history of a shared democratic ideal. Some see the monument in the Black Hills as one of the spoils of violent conquest over indigenous tribes by a U.S. Army clearing the way for white settlers driven westward by a lust for land and gold.
As it was in colonial America, the young country’s expansion was fueled by “Manifest Destiny” — a self-supreme notion that any land coveted by Euro-Americans was, by providence, rightfully theirs for the taking.
Completed in 1941, Mount Rushmore has been wildly successful as originally intended: as a tourist attraction to draw visitors to a remote place that otherwise would be largely ignored.
The sculptures were chiseled by an imported Ku Klux Klansman on a granite mountain owned by indigenous tribes on what they considered sacred land — land that the U.S. Supreme Court said in 1980 was illegally taken from them.
In 2012, a United Nations human rights official endorsed returning the Black Hills (“Paha Sapa”) to resident Lakota, reviving a debate over whether eligible tribes should accept a cash settlement that tops $1 billion in an interest-bearing account. A prevailing response is that tribes want the land, a basis of the 1973 occupation of nearby Wounded Knee by the Minneapolis-based American Indian Movement.
The presidents on Mount Rushmore reside in favored historical positions, of course: Their contributions to building America are amply documented and widely revered, even by young schoolchildren.
But the four also sanctioned, and themselves practiced, dominance over those with darker skin.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.
Abraham Lincoln famously emancipated slaves, but he supported eradicating Indian tribes from western lands and approved America’s largest-ever mass execution, the hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato for their alleged crimes in the 1862 war along the Minnesota River.
Teddy Roosevelt, in his “The Winning of the West,” wrote: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are … .”
The Black Hills story has many beginnings, but it was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 that opened westward settlement that would seal the fate of Plains tribes, including Minnesota’s Dakota.
President Jefferson, bent on territorial enlargement to advance his vision of an agrarian empire, cut a sweet quick-sale with Napoleon, who urgently needed cash to support France’s wars against England and others. The U.S. acquired claims to territory occupied by indigenous people — 600,000 by some estimates — who were unaware that the familiar sod under their feet had passed from French to U.S. control.
The so-called “Indian wars” featured the U.S. Army aggressively enforcing America’s expansionist resolve by exterminating indigenous tribes who sought to stay where they’d always been. Indians would lose nearly every bloody battle that would follow.
Unlike Minnesota’s Dakota, also known as Sioux, the Lakota in the Black Hills and Powder River Basin were practiced warriors led by a savvy, unyielding chief, Red Cloud. They effectively fended off territorial intrusion by wagon trains of pioneers and prospectors.
Unable to root out Red Cloud, a humbled U.S. Army signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 granting Lakota autonomy over a broad, 60-million-acre region encompassing all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River — including the Black Hills — and parts of North Dakota and Nebraska. Lakota could also continue hunting migrating bison on a vast range of eastern Wyoming and Montana.
But like every tribal treaty before and since, the U.S. reneged on its Fort Laramie promises almost immediately by failing to prevent small-scale incursions into “The Great Sioux Reservation.”
Just six years after Laramie, Gen. George Custer led a U.S. Army expedition out of Fort Lincoln (present-day Bismarck, N.D.) into the Black Hills to explore suitable sites for forts and routes to them. The action was a purposely provocative treaty violation.
Another mission, to assess the presence of gold, would hasten the treaty’s demise. Custer rosily trumpeted that gold was found, unleashing a torrent of prospectors that the U.S. chose not to contain.
After a failed bid to buy the Black Hills, the U.S. determined to drive out the Lakota and simply take the area’s riches. Fierce resistance by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull was worn down by the Army’s big guns and well-supplied legions, mostly dispatched from Minnesota’s Fort Snelling.
An impetuous Custer relished any fight, but his trademark careless aggression led to his command’s annihilation at the Little Bighorn in 1876. News of the “heroic last stand” prompted a redoubling of U.S. troops in fighting that now included shameless destruction of entire villages and even starving out resisters by wholesale slaughter of bison, the tribes’ staple food.
At war’s end, the “victorious” U.S. carved up the Great Sioux Reservation by first taking back the Black Hills and broad swaths of buffers. The Lakota were forced onto mostly useless land, including the Pine Ridge Reservation on South Dakota’s southern border.
For some years, the U.S. turned its attention to herding western tribes like the Navajo and Apache onto reservations by means as brutal as any of the Plains wars and “ethnic cleansing” of Native Americans in colonial America. But the dreaded Army would return to South Dakota.
The Lakota had taken to a spiritual “Ghost Dance” that promised to resurrect their dead to help retake lost land. Their frenzied gyrations while wearing white shirts, believed to deflect enemy bullets, unnerved settlers who requested, and got, Army protection.
On a bitter December day in 1890, a U.S. cavalry contingent intercepted a band of ghost-dancing Lakota and attempted to confiscate what few guns they had. A shot rang out, and panicked soldiers opened fire from all sides, killing 150 men, women and children before hunting down scores of unarmed Lakota and shooting them point-blank as they struggled in the snow.
The infamous Wounded Knee Massacre (incredibly, the U.S. called it a “battle” and awarded medals to its “heroes”) was the last of America’s long, violent campaigns to subdue indigenous tribes all across the continent.
Manifest Destiny has a long, sinister history that some say lives on today as “American exceptionalism.”
Three decades after Wounded Knee, in 1923, a South Dakota tourism agent advanced an idea for several large sculptures in the Black Hills. He enlisted the support of the renowned Gutzon Borglum, whose most recent work had been carving Stone Mountain, Ga., a grand gathering site for a white supremacist group Borglum belonged to, the Ku Klux Klan.
Borglum embraced the idea, but he wanted to go big. Rather than sculpting Western heroes including Red Cloud, as proposed, Borglum prevailed with a self-promoting plan to do busts of popular U.S. presidents. Crafting Mount Rushmore as we now know it began in 1927 and continued for 14 years.
If you go, there’s much to see in the Black Hills: Devils Tower, the in-progress sculpture of Lakota hero Crazy Horse, magnificent parkland with roaming buffalo, and historic Deadwood. It’s worth a side trip to the Badlands, and maybe a stop at Wall Drug, which got its start offering free ice water to overheated travelers en route to … where else?
At Mount Rushmore, you may learn that the sculptures are arranged for maximum sun exposure, itself a cruel irony: The faces of the four presidents (white conquerors) peer southeast toward a reservation housing vanquished Lakota, who mostly live out forgotten, impoverished lives in the shadow of their sacred Paha Sapa that, legally, still belong to them.
Within that dark shadow is Wounded Knee.
Ron Way, of Edina, is a former official of the U.S. Interior Department and its National Park Service.