In a time of belated monument removal—officially or by volunteers—it’s fitting that on Friday Donald Trump will be on hand for Independence Day fireworks in the Black Hills of South Dakota at the nation’s biggest statuary monument to white supremacy. The venue is Mount Rushmore, which carries the name of a man who donated a large sum to help sculpt the rock into depictions of four presidents. Trump’s campaign team clearly figures the mountain backdrop will help sculpt a message that un-derails his deeply troubled reelection operation.
Trump certainly won’t be the first occupant of the White House to appear at this tourist attraction dynamited into the mountain that the Lakota (Sioux) call the “Six Grandfathers (Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe) and “Cougar Mountain” (Igmútȟaŋka Pahá). Calvin Coolidge was there in 1927 to dedicate the project before the first drill-bit spun a hole in the granite. For the campaign team, It’s all about getting some of that iconic greatness displayed on the mountain to rub off on their guy come election day by having him pay public homage to a sculpture that he thinks his own visage should be squeezed onto.
The marketers label Mount Rushmore the “Shrine of Democracy.” The late American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks called it the ”Hoax of Democracy.” Oglala Lakota President Julian Bear Runner told USA Today last week that Trump had failed to show respect by consulting with tribal leaders about coming to the Black Hills. Bear Runner is one of the many Lakotas, Cheyennes, Indians of other tribes, and non-Indian allies who have no love for the sculpture, with or without Trump’s mug added. “I don’t believe it should be blown up, because it would cause more damage to the land,” Bear Runner said, adding, however, that there are environmentally sound solutions. “Removed, but not blown up.”
Fortunately, there is no room left at Rushmore for a sculptor to have to worry about getting Trump’s coiffure correctly chiseled into stone.
But come Friday we will have our corrupt and conniving president, who has so many times proved he despises American Indians, showing up to fluff his patriotic feathers at a commercial enterprise built on land stolen from the Lakota nearly a century and a half ago using starvation tactics and gunpowder. Land looted to extract gold and implant white settlements. A court would rule in 1974 that treaty-violating congressional legislation in 1876 had “meant that unless the Sioux surrendered the Black Hills they would be allowed to starve.” Never mind that just eight years previously, in the Treaty of 1868, the Black Hills had been included in land the government guaranteed would remain Lakota territory in perpetuity.
There were plenty of appropriate words back then to describe what was done, but these days we have a new one—genocide—and more importantly an international convention on the subject to which the United States is signatory. Included in the convention’s Article II, which defines the term, is Section c: Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
Exterminating the bison was never a written-down, official government policy. But the same Union generals who had brought an end to chattel slavery in part with scorched-earth tactics against the Confederacy knew that if they could cut off the food supply of the Plains Indians, they could knock down the last obstacle to corralling the resisting tribes on reservations out of the so-called path of progress. In a letter to Gen. Philip Sheridan, dated May 10, 1868, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote that as long as buffalo roamed Nebraska: “Indians will go there. I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all.”
And so it came to pass.
The Army protected bison hunters who stacked the skulls, removed the hides, cut out the tongues, and left the rest of the meat to rot. An aggressive white hunter could kill 250 bison a day and was free to do so. The railroads promoted hunting excursions with hunters blazing away from train windows and rooftops. But Native Americans who left their designated reservations to hunt the same dwindling bison herds could be fined and imprisoned. Thus were the animals who had roamed the Plains for at least 135,000 years reduced from tens of millions to a few hundred in two decades, a slaughter that meant disaster for the many tribes and eco-systems dependent on them.
By 1874, the great herds were on the cusp of oblivion. Late that July, the official prospector attached to the 1,000-man Army expedition into the Black Hills led by Lt. Col. George A. Custer found flakes of gold in a creek. The news spread fast. By the following July, the town of Custer had sprung into being, followed by a storm of hopeful gold-seekers ending any pretense of Lakota perpetuity. This led to clashes between white interlopers and Natives. Feeling betrayed by the violation of the 1868 treaty, many Lakotas under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse left the reservation. By June 1876, they had been joined by their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies in Montana, camping perhaps 10,000 strong in Medicine Tail Coulee. Custer soon made his last public appearance there.
Donald Trump won’t come to the Black Hills bearing gifts, except for more potential spread of the coronavirus and the chance of sparking a wildfire from the fireworks he insists must be part of his campaign rally there. It will be no surprise if he claims he’s done more for American Indians than any president ever, but we can be sure there will be no genuine pledge of improvement in U.S.-tribal relations. Or a promise of more money in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic to boost the capabilities of the chronically underfunded and understaffed Indian Health Service. And he certainly won’t announce any move to return the Black Hills to the Lakota.
On a very different July 4th, 144 years ago, what had been a trickle of vague news from the Little Big Horn became a flood of grim detail reaching Washington, D.C. There were huge celebrations underway for the Centennial of the Declaration of Independence, tamped down a bit by the economic recession known as the Panic of 1873, which was still underway. The news of the crushing of the 7th Cavalry and death of the arrogant Custer had an electrifying effect.
Stunned and angered, the Army fielded thousands of soldiers, both cavalry and infantry, and began the operations that would within 15 years end most of the armed resistance of the western tribes. It would also make way for another big round of dispossession. Between 1877 and 1934, nearly two-thirds of the land remaining in Indian hands west of the Mississippi was grabbed as government policy for the Lakota and all the other tribes focused on destroying Indian identity, tribal governance, culture, religion, customs, and language.
To the Lakota, the Black Hills are Pahá Sápa. Sacred ground. Not sacred only to them. Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Crow feel the same about this land to which they also have ancient attachments. From a visit at any time of year, it’s easy to see why. I’m not going to describe it other than to say this is a magnetic place with its own unique rhythms. I suspect the Paleo-Indians that evidence says were in the Black Hills 400 generations ago had their own special name for them.
But ever since 1941 when work on Mount Rushmore was completed after 14 years of construction, the Black Hills have been tainted by the sculpture of four men of imperial America, of Manifest Destiny before that even became a buzzphrase. Swindlers of Indians. Killers of Indians. Orderers of others to kill Indians. Haters of Indians. To be fair, all four don’t check every box. And two of them didn’t own slaves. So there’s that.
Only Teddy Roosevelt, the most recently serving president blasted onto Mount Rushmore, didn’t order or personally engage in killing Indians. He did, however, make his views obvious when he took note of words attributed to Gen. Sheridan about the only good Indian being a dead one with his own version: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe 9 out of every 10 are. And I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.” Two decades later, as president, he presided over the land-stealing, culture-cracking allotment process that he called “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.”
His three companions on the mountain presided over policies that did some pulverizing of their own. A quarter millennium ago, by the time of the revolution for independence and its immediate aftermath in which George Washington and Thomas Jefferson played such key roles, the course of relations between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the so-called New World were well established. Legal mumbo-jumbo concealed the underlying principle: This is some cool place you got here. We like it. Therefore more of us are moving in, and because most of our values and yours just don’t mesh, you either adopt our ways, move the hell out, or go live wherever we decide to stick you.
One of the most infamous court rulings enforcing these relations is what legal scholars have labeled the Dred Scott decision for Indians—Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock. The Kiowa chief Lone Wolf claimed the U.S. had defrauded the tribe by violating a treaty requiring that any allotment of tribal land to individuals be approved by three-quarters of tribal members. But the Supreme Court agreed with lower courts in 1903 that Congress has absolute plenary power over the tribes and can abrogate and rewrite any treaty however it wants any time it wants. Land held in trust, the court stated, is owned by the government, not the Indians, who are mere occupants. The opinion also showed the justices unanimously viewed Indians as inferior in religion, race, and culture:
It is to be presumed that in this matter the United States would be governed by such considerations of justice as would control a Christian people in their treatment of an ignorant and dependent race. Be that is it may, the propriety or justice of their action towards the Indians with respect to their lands is a question of governmental policy, and is not a matter open to discussion in a controversy between third parties, neither of whom derives title from the Indians.
This isn’t just ancient history. Its legacy still directly affects the circumstances of modern indigenous Americans. Steps to improve relations have occurred during the past 50 years as a new consciousness emerged under pressure from tribal leaders, scholars, and pan-Indian activists, including a growing cadre of Indian lawyers like those at the Native American Rights Fund. Some important steps have been taken in that half-century to reverse or make amends for past injustices. There is a reemphasis on government-to-government relations, a key recognition of Native sovereignty. But these steps are far from adequate.
Okay, the men on the mountain were flawed, just like all human beings, but they are heroes to many Americans. Removing them would be orders of magnitude greater than pulling down a bronze statue of Columbus or moving one of Nathan Bedford Forrest out of a public park, right? Surely the good of these four presidents outweighs their bad. Isn’t calling for their removal the perfect target for Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump himself to ridicule and label “extremist”? Won’t many liberals see such a removal as a step too far? After all, one of these men was the Father of the Nation and initiated a tradition of leaving office after two terms. Another wrote the Declaration. One was the Great Emancipator. One was the Trustbuster who hated monopolies almost as much as he loved the environment. Wouldn’t scraping their depictions off the mountain after 80 years be erasing American history, the good with the bad? Wouldn’t it be like smashing Abu Simbel because Ramses II had his flaws?
Surely I am not seriously suggesting the Mount Rushmore faces be removed, am I? Yes, I am. And no, I’m not. If it were up to me, the faces would go. But that choice should be left up to the Lakota and whoever else they seek counsel from to make a decision.
In 1980, the courts ordered payment of $102 million to the Lakota as compensation for the Black Hills. The tribes refused the money. An escrow account holding the payment has now swollen to $1.6 billion with compound interest, and tribes have still refused the money, arguing that the Black Hills are not for sale. If Congress truly accepts Native sovereignty, if it really believes in correcting injustice, if it wants to launch an important symbolic and practical approach to future Indian policy, why not make the people who have for 40 years refused compensation for this theft the perpetual guardians of the Black Hills? We—and Congress—should trust the wisdom of the Lakota to be good stewards of the land, and to do the right thing about the sculpture, the healing thing, whatever the elders decide that should be. Maybe removal. Maybe not.
Turning the Black Hills over to the Lakota would not, of course, address all the inadequacies and contradictions and complications of U.S.-Indian policy whatever decision is made regarding the fate of those faces on the mountain. But the acknowledgement of past injustice combined with affirmation of Native sovereignty would be another step in the right direction not only for the Lakota, but all indigenous Americans.
The depictions of the four presidents were completed in 14 years, in 1941. That same year a monument to Crazy Horse got underway on nearby private land. Nearly eight decades later, that sculpture, like American Indian policy, remains unfinished business. No progress in this regard can get started as long as the man rallying his followers at Mount Rushmore Friday remains in office. But when the next president steps into the White House, that unfinished business deserves fresh attention.
For readers seeking more detail and nuance on this and related subjects, here’s a short list of relevant books and an article I can vouch for, though without agreeing with everything in them:
- The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground, by Jeffrey Ostler
- Black Hills, White Justice: The Sioux Nation Versus The United States, 1775 to the Present, by Edward Lazarus
- In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided, by Walter R. Echohawk
- In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, by Walter R. Echohawk
- The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, by David Treuer
- The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, by Patricia N. Limerick
- Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development, edited by Miriam Jorgensen
- The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation, by Colin G. Calloway
- “Can Patriotism Be Carved in Stone? A Critical Analysis of Mt. Rushmore’s Orientation Films,” by Teresa Bergman