Everyone I’ve ever known who has visited Mount Rushmore has said the same thing, when I get all excited to find out they’ve visited somewhere I’ve never been. They say it looks bigger in the photos, and is apparently a bit of a letdown when you see it in real life. Few tourists complain about how it was never finished, or that the land it sits on is stolen; folks just caution you not to go too far out of your way to see it, without being aware that it isn’t nearly as imposing in real life as it looks in the pictures. Also, the tourist shops dwarf the monument itself; but that is just a testament to why it was created.
Originally, the monument was conceived by a guy who thought carving the images of certain famous folks in the Black Hills of South Dakota would bring tourist dollars to a part of the country where visitors didn’t usually bother going. Doane Robinson figured the Needles would be a great place for the sculpture; and some good faces to feature would be people like Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody and Red Cloud. He commissioned an artist to get started, Gutzon Borglum, and the plan changed pretty quickly after that.
Borglum didn’t like the original location, or the faces Robinson had proposed. It was his idea to use Mount Rushmore instead of the Needles, and to put the likenesses of the four presidents on the rock face instead of a more mixed group. He even chose the four presidents to be featured, which is to say he basically discarded the original idea in favor of his own. Apparently Robinson just went with it, although the changes shouldn’t have surprised him: the reason Borglum was available in the first place was because he had argued so much with his last employer that the project had been cancelled.
His new design was a sculpture of four notable presidents from the waist up. The four chosen to be forever chiseled in stone might not have been the choices everyone would have made, but they are the ones Borglum picked. I personally would have been happy with just Washington, from the waist up like it was designed; the rest of the mountain could have been left the way it was, and might have been better for it. The main reason we only got a partial piece was because funding ran out; the faces were completed first, and the rest got left out. If they had finished up on Washington instead of moving on after completing his face, he might be the only guy up there; at worst, it would be him and Jefferson.
When people talk about Gutzon Borglum, they often have a lot to say about his ties to the Ku Klux Klan; and how it affected his choice of faces for this memorial. I think just mentioning the one is enough; and we’ve already said plenty about the other. Let’s leave off on the dead artist now, and have a brief look at the history of the land he was given to select from. One of the reasons Mount Rushmore was chosen over the Needles was because of Native American resistance; but those same people were not too happy about the site that was chosen, and with pretty good cause.
When a lot of people talk about stolen land, what they usually mean is territory gained under less than ethical means. Native Americans didn’t really view the land as something that could be owned, and selling off a state for a case of whiskey probably seemed like a good idea to folks who weren’t obsessed with things like property rights. America was largely purchased, for the record: the fact that most of those purchases were what we might kindly refer to as ‘shady deals’ was really the unfair part of all that.
But in this case, we’re really talking about stolen land. In fact, it was stolen twice. When the US government initially tried to buy the Black Hills of South Dakota from the local natives, they refused. Plan B was swiftly executed, as were a lot of Native Americans; and after some of the most famously shameful battles of early American history, the government simply took the land. They gave it back awhile later, as part of a series of treaties made with tribes across the country; but then gold deposits were discovered in them there hills, and the government seized the land once more.
To be fair, another attempt to buy the territory was made some time later. The US government offered the Lakota people what they thought was a good price, about a billion dollars, to officially purchase the land. The natives refused, and the money still sits in an interest-bearing account waiting for them to change their collective mind. Even the United States Supreme Court ruled that the land belongs to them, although the ruling did not bring the local tribes any closer to getting their land back.
Apparently they’re supposed to be happy that a bigger monument is going up elsewhere in the Black Hills, of Crazy Horse; but more than one Native American has pointed out that Crazy Horse himself would not have been too keen on someone carving away the natural beauty of a mountain to build a monument with his likeness. If anything, it could be seen as kind of insulting. Also, the people profiting on the tourist attraction are not even Native American. That passes the point of being only kind of insulting, pretty clearly.
If only we could say these are a couple examples of terribleness, that are washed away by the sea of great things done for Native Americans by the government; but these are pretty typical examples, and no one is really all that surprised to discover the truth about Mount Rushmore or the Crazy Horse monument. Space and nature and people provide a lot of examples of thoughts that hurt to think; but nobody does it like the government. For comedians, I suppose that’s a good thing.
For the rest of us, it can be a little terrifying.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,