13 July 2009

Laying Claim to Sacred Land

In 1938, as often before and after, Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, offered a reading of the significance of the four U.S. Presidents whose images were being carved into granite. He explained,
Jefferson appears on Mount Rushmore because he drew the Declaration of Independence; Washington, because he was the great presiding officer in shaping the Constitution; Lincoln, because it was Lincoln and no other than Lincoln, whose mind and heart, and finally life, determined that we should continue as a common family of states and in union forever. Roosevelt is joined with the others because he completed the dream of Columbus, opened the way to the East, [and] joined the waters of the great East and West seas. (Dean,* 56)
An entirely different view was offered in 1970 by Lehman Brightman, cofounder of United Native Americans. Brightman and others in his group had joined John Trudell, representing the United Tribes of Alcatraz, several members of the American Indian Movement, including Russell Means, and some Lakota elders for a protest at Mount Rushmore. The protest was planned as an assertion of the Sioux claim to the Paha Sapa, or Black Hills, as recognized in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Means reported his memories of Brightman's speech in his autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread (1995). According to Means,
Lee explained that George Washington had become famous as an Indian killer during the French and Indian War. He had risen quickly through the militia ranks by butchering Indian communities and burning the bones. ... Lee spoke of Thomas Jefferson, who more than once had proposed the annihilation of the Indian race to "cleanse" the Americas ... Abraham Lincoln ... signed an order to execute thirty-eight Indians for the so-called Great Sioux Uprising in Minnesota. ... Finally, Lee spoke about Teddy Roosevelt, the biggest thief ever to occupy the White House. Roosevelt violated scores of treaties, and illegally nationalized more Indian land than any president, before or since. (167-68)
There are many ever-changing variations of Borglum's celebratory tale, and of Brightman's iconoclastic narrative. Borglum's view reflects a tradition in historical scholarship, but which remains dominant in the histories consumed by tourists. Brightman's view, on the other hand, provokes memories not yet emergent in histories of the nation. These divergent views of the figures carved into Mount Rushmore express fundamental conflicts in the meanings of America as a nation.

*Robert J. Dean, Living Granite: the Story of Borglum and the Mount Rushmore Memorial (1949).

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