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Mount Rushmore: Isn’t it time to talk about its Native American history?​​​​​​​

  • July 13, 2020

On a cross country trip about two weeks ago, I found myself in South Dakota. So, I thought I’d take a visit to Mount Rushmore

I wasn’t the only one who recently decided to stop by the mountain shaped by strategic explosions into the faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

When I went, I saw more license plates from more states than I’ve ever seen in one place. A week later, President Trump made an appearance and speech there for an Independence Day event. Protesters anticipated his arrival.

Protesters form a blockade of vans and bodies on the highway leading to Mount Rushmore on Friday, July 3, 2020, in Keystone, S.D.

But when I was there on a hot summer Saturday, I wanted to know: At a time when statues are being toppled, schools are being renamed and plantation tours are evolving (to focus more on the enslaved), is Mount Rushmore providing visitors with more context about its own history?

Do tourists hear anything about how the famous site was built on the Black Hills that many Native people consider sacred and stolen from them? Do tourists learn at all about how members of the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes, some of whom live in the most impoverished places in the world, are still owed millions for that land from the U.S. government?

In my experience, the short answer was no.

At the end of June, Mount Rushmore was filled with tourists.

What my visit to the park was like

I went to Mount Rushmore, ready to do all of the tours, read all of the guides and soak up all of the information possible about this literally groundbreaking site. Unfortunately, because of fireworks preparation above the bridge of Roosevelt’s glasses, certain trails were blocked off. And because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Mount Rushmore Visitor Center was closed and rentable audio guides were unavailable.

So I did the only things I could: Waved to the giant presidents from afar and walked to the open Sculptor’s Studio, where a ranger was giving talks. The presentation I heard started like this: “How many of you have ever had a dream?”

The rhetorical question and spiel had nothing to do with Martin Luther King, Jr., but, as it turned out, everything to do with the grand achievement of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor behind Mount Rushmore. Borglum is also the man whose likeness is rendered in a bust at the park entrance and whose name is honored with a nearby highway and art museum.

The ranger explained how Borglum brought the project to life over the course of more than a decade. He added that Borglum’s son had to finish the work (which was initially supposed to depict more of the presidents’ bodies) after he died.

The ranger did not mention that Borglum had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. He also glossed over the fact that Borglum was the original sculptor for the Confederate memorial in Stone Mountain, Georgia, featuring Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. 

And that was it. Though I sought information about the Black Hills and Indigenous people, I didn’t find any.

Was my experience typical?

According to Maureen McGee-Ballinger, the interpretation and education chief at the National Park Service, “interpretive rangers” as the NPS calls them, give a wide range of talks in topics of their choosing, including the talk I heard about Borglum.

“We don’t tell our staff what to say” when it comes to sharing Rushmore’s history, she tells USA TODAY, and adds that she doesn’t see a need to update programing in the wake of the nation’s call for greatercultural inclusion.

“I think we’ve always handled the story,” she says. “I don’t think there’s any change there.”

The man telling ‘the Native side of the story’

Darrell Red Cloud, a former National Park Service ranger, gives talks at Mount Rushmore in his traditional regalia.

McGee-Ballinger says that there is a guide, Darrell Red Cloud, who tells the Native side of the story. He wasn’t working when I visited.

“I am the only (presenter) at Mount Rushmore giving this information,” Red Cloud, who has been working at the memorial site since 2012, tells USA TODAY.

Red Cloud presents twice a week. Typically, when there’s no pandemic or construction underway, he’s stationed in a space filled with teepees called the “Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village.” He’s a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and a great-great-grandson of legendary war chief Red Cloud.

Darrell Red Cloud says that the Mount Rushmore museum and audio guide – the latter of which he voices in the Lakota language – are completely devoid of information about the culture and plight of his people.

“They don’t tell the Native side of the story at all,” he says about the NPS visitor material.

The education information, Red Cloud says, tell “the other side of the story, the white man’s side of the story, that’s all it focuses on. And I even recommended a few times to the people there, ‘Hey, we need to tell a little bit of the Native side of the story,’ but it was always spoken to a deaf ear.”

Over the July Fourth weekend, Red Cloud said tourists yelled at him to “be quiet and move on” when he spoke of the the Indigenous people and their history of treaties broken by the U.S. But, he says, “I needed to say it anyway because I needed to bring some sort of awareness of our people and what that mountain stood for and how we believe that is a sacred site.”

Although there are calls to remove Mount Rushmore, Red Cloud isn’t going that far. He’s only asking that more historical context be provided – and not just by him.

Opinion:My great-grandfather carved Mount Rushmore on sacred land. Now is the time to remove it.

A call for more historical context

Red Cloud has this request: “I feel that the United States government should implement a whole program at Mount Rushmore, with statues, some photos, some displays to tell the story of the Native people in their museum.”

Could this be their moment?

In just the last week, Washington’s NFL team announced that it’s dropping the name Redskins, the Supreme Court ruled that half of Oklahoma is now considered Native American land and a judge sided with the Standing Rock Sioux, ordering that the Dakota Access pipeline be shut down.

Red Cloud says that it’s challenging to be the only one talking about his people at the popular tourist site, but sharing his stories is vital.

“It is very hard to be up there because I do walk into a place that’s completely racist, but I’ve trained myself to look beyond that because every person is a good person, but they’re not educated on the issues,” he says. “They were told a story that they stuck to all their lives and they don’t understand.”

The latest: Washington’s NFL franchise to drop team name and logo after 87 years

Opinion: Cold, hard cash, not character, made owner Daniel Snyder change Washington’s NFL nickname

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