Rushmore symbolizes the white male leaders who have utterly, aggressively failed enormous swaths of people who lived on this continent before them.
On the 4th of July of our nation’s bicentennial, when I was 7, I went with my beloved grandmother to celebrate her father’s most notable work, one of the world’s most famous monuments, a landmark that had come to stand for America. My great-grandfather, Gutzon Borglum, carved Mount Rushmore. While heralded as a massive artistic achievement, there was criticism of the monument even when it was unveiled in the early 1940s.
There was also a grandfather and an uncle who chose not to join us because, I had inferred from hushed voices, they might have opposed the sculptor’s egomania, his lack of proportion, even to the questionable aesthetics of a man — capable of stunning bronze and marble statues — carving four presidents’ faces into the side of a mountain.
Most important, family members and other critics spoke of violating sacred Native American land.
Two of the four presidents my great-grandfather carved owned slaves. In an 1886 address, Theodore Roosevelt, who already had a long history of animosity toward Indigenous Peoples said, “I don’t go so far as to say that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe 9 out of 10 are.”
Family, teachers, eventual peers and colleagues argued that when the monument was begun, it “was a different time.” Some suggested that my great-grandfather’s questionable alliances were fiscal, not ideological; they said every major American leader owned slaves back when you could. There was mention of “sacred Indian land,” often with a rueful, nearly contrite, shake of the head.
A monument to injustices
By 2020, the ubiquitous Rushmore bumper stickers, coffee mugs, television ads and T-shirts of my youth have morphed into memes. In one I loved, each forefather wore a pink knit “pussy hat.” More recently, my Instagram showed the four presidents in face masks. Even amid deep national division, few monuments feel more emblematic of our United States.
And yet — as with patriotic songs and slogans and even with our nation’s flag — a fuller appreciation of income and gender and ethnic and racial injustices has turned me into someone who cannot love broadly patriotic emblems right now.
For the Lakotas, South Dakota’s Black Hills have been the site of sacred prayer services for innumerable generations. The granite faces look upon the location of Washun Niya, where Mother Earth is believed to breathe. In 1868, our government“granted” the Sioux, made up of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes, rights to “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of the Black Hills. A mere six years later, gold was “discovered,” and a small portion of the Sioux people ceded the land in exchange for badly needed food.
Unpatriotic: Trump attacks core American values at Rushmore. Disagree with him, you’re an enemy of the state.
My great-grandfather would begin to carve American presidents into the Black Hills only after having destroyed (famously, spectacularly, in a kind of artistic tantrum) the models he had created for a different gigantic, side-of-a-mountain monument in Stone Mountain, Georgia — one memorializing Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who became a prominent leader of the Klan.
Recognize centuries of torment
This July 3, President Trump used my great-grandfather’s work as a background to foment division and willful ignorance, a rally on the ancient sacred land of a people we have persecuted, a rally that further threatens that population with pandemic. All of this speaks to the monument as symbolic of white male leaders who have utterly, aggressively failed enormous swaths of people who lived on this continent before them.
To those who say Mount Rushmore should be preserved because it’s part of our history, I say the four presidents carved forever into the granite speak of the fundamental brutality of “Western Expansion” and “Manifest Destiny.” The monument says nothing — or everything, horrifically — about the struggles we Americans inflicted on communities that had lived on this continent for at least 15,000 years.
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At this moment when we are doing work as a nation to think hard about the horrendous injustice of slavery and the pervasive, systemic racism that has followed, we also need to remember the near annihilation of Indigenous Peoples. We need to recognize their centuries of torment and how we continue to fail those individuals.
I believe it is time. Time to remove a monument that celebrates the perpetrators of a genocide, a monument that sits on the sacred land of the very people who continue to be so deeply wronged today.
Kimberly Ford is a writer and editor in Northern California.
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