The Heartbreaking, Controversial History of Mount RushmoreHistorians in the News
tags: Native American history, Mt. Rushmore
BUILT ON SACRED Native American land and sculpted by a man with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, Mount Rushmore National Memorial was fraught with controversy even before it was completed 79 years ago on October 31, 1941.
Mount Rushmore pays patriotic tribute to four United States presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—with 60-foot-tall faces carved into a mountainside in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Over the years, the monument has drawn protests over its location on indigenous land, debates about whether another commander-in-chief deserves a spot on the mountain, and a Hollywood controversy over an Alfred Hitchcock movie partially filmed on the site.
To understand how Mount Rushmore has become a cultural symbol and flash point, here’s a look at how the memorial came to be.
Before it became known as Mount Rushmore, the Lakota called this granite formation Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain. It was a place for prayer and devotion for the Native people of the Great Plains, explains Donovin Sprague, head of the history department at Sheridan College in Wyoming and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The mountain’s location in the Black Hills was also significant.
“It’s the center of the universe of our people,” Sprague says. For Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho communities, the region was not only spiritually important, it was also where tribes gathered food and plants they used in building and medicine.
In the late 1800s, Euro-American settlers began pushing into the Black Hills, igniting a war with the indigenous population. The U.S. government signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, giving the Lakota exclusive use of the Black Hills. Within a decade, however, gold was discovered in the region and, in 1877, the U.S. broke the treaty and took over the land.
“What happened with the Black Hills is so clearly theft in relation to the U.S.’s own laws,” says Christine Gish Hill, a professor of anthropology at Iowa State University who has investigated the meaning of Mount Rushmore for Native Americans.
After that, settlers and prospectors poured into the region. In 1884, New York attorney Charles Rushmore visited to strike a deal on a tin mine, and, on a lark, Six Grandfathers was renamed after him.
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