Trump visit to Mount Rushmore draws ire from Native groups
Native Americans criticise Trump’s upcoming trip to Mount Rushmore which they see as a monument to desecration.
25 Jun 2020 17:40 GMT
US Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are sculpted on Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills region of South Dakota [Handout: NPS via Reuters]
US President Donald Trump’s plans to kick off Independence Day with a showy display at Mount Rushmore are drawing sharp criticism from Native Americans who view the monument as a desecration of land violently stolen from them and used to pay homage to leaders hostile to Native people.
Several groups led by Native American activists are planning protests against Trump’s July 3 visit, part of his “comeback” campaign for a nation reeling from sickness, unemployment and, recently, social unrest. The event is slated to include fighter jets thundering over the 79-year-old stone monument in South Dakota’s Black Hills and the first fireworks display at the site since 2009.
But it comes amid a national reckoning over racism and a reconsideration of the symbolism of monuments around the globe. Many Native American activists say the Rushmore memorial is as reprehensible as the many Confederate monuments being toppled around the nation.
“Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy, of structural racism that’s still alive and well in society today,” Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and the president of a local activist organisation called NDN Collective, told The Associated Press news agency. “It’s an injustice to actively steal Indigenous people’s land then carve the white faces of the conquerors who committed genocide.”
While some activists, like Tilsen, want to see the monument removed altogether and the Black Hills returned to the Lakota, others have called for a share in the economic benefits from the region and the tourists it attracts.
Trump has long shown a fascination with Mount Rushmore. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said in 2018 that he had once told her straight-faced it was his dream to have his face carved into the monument. He later joked at a campaign rally about getting enshrined alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
And while it was Noem, a Republican, who pushed for a return of the fireworks on the eve of Independence Day, Trump joined the effort and committed to visiting South Dakota for the celebration, which has caused controversy.
It would be so brand if Trump burned down mount Rushmore for attention. pic.twitter.com/uj3Uz8rv0w
— Dr Benjamin Janaway (@drjanaway) June 24, 2020
The four faces, carved into the mountain with dynamite and drills, are known as the “shrine to democracy”. The presidents were chosen by sculptor Gutzon Borglum for their leadership during four phases of American development: Washington led the birth of the nation; Jefferson sparked its westward expansion; Lincoln preserved the union and emancipated slaves; Roosevelt championed industrial innovation.
And yet, for many Native American people, including the Lakota, Cheyenne, Omaha, Arapaho, Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache, the monument is a desecration to the Black Hills, which they consider sacred. Lakota people know the area as Paha Sapa – “the heart of everything that is”.
As monuments to Confederate and colonial leaders have been removed across US cities, conservatives have expressed concern that Mount Rushmore could be next.
Trump needs to stand in front of Mount Rushmore and declare America and her heroes great. He needs to defend the United States and Western Civilization.
America needs leadership.
— Inez Stepman (@InezFeltscher) June 24, 2020
Tim Giago, a journalist who is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, said he does not see four great American leaders when he looks at the monument, but instead four white men who either made racist remarks or initiated actions that removed Native Americans from their land.
Washington and Jefferson both held slaves. Lincoln, though he led the abolition of slavery, also approved the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota after a violent conflict with white settlers there. It is the largest mass execution in US history.
Roosevelt is reported to have said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are.”
The monument has long been a “Rorschach test”, said John Taliaferro, author of Great White Fathers, a history of the monument. “All sorts of people can go there and see it in different ways.”
Toppled statues amid anti-racism protests
The monument often starts conversations on the paradox of American democracy – that a republic that promoted the ideals of freedom, determination and innovation also enslaved people and drove others from their land, he said.
The road trip
“If we’re having this discussion today about what American democracy is, Mount Rushmore is really serving its purpose because that conversation goes on there,” he said. “Is it fragile? Is it permanent? Is it cracking somewhat?”
The monument was conceived in the 1920s as a tourist draw for the new fad in vacationing called the road trip. South Dakota historian Doane Robinson recruited Borglum, one of the pre-eminent sculptors at the time, to abandon his work creating the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in Georgia, which was to feature Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson.
Protesters with shields and gas masks wait for police action as they surround the statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond [Steve Helber/AP Photo]
Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, according to Mount Rushmore historian and writer Tom Griffith. Borglum joined the Klan to raise money for the Confederate memorial, and Griffith argues his allegiance was more practical than ideological.
He left that project and instead spent years in South Dakota completing Mount Rushmore.
Native American activists have long staged protests at the site to raise awareness among the history of the Black Hills, which were taken from them despite treaties with the United States protecting the land.
Fifty years ago a group of activists associated with an organisation called United Native Americans climbed to the top of the monument and occupied it.
Quanah Brightman, who now runs United Native Americans, said the activism in the 1970s grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He hopes a similar movement for Native Americans comes from the Black Lives Matter movement.
“What people find here is the story of America – it’s multidimensional, it’s complex,” Griffith said. “It’s important to understand it was people just trying to do right as best they knew it then.”
The White House declined the AP’s request for comment.