The Six Grandfathers, Mount Rushmore, and our national identity

What does it mean when national monuments mean freedom to one group, and oppression to another?

“This monument will never be desecrated… Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and our freedom.” – President Donald Trump

Those words sparked a fire in me when the president spoke at The Six Grandfathers last Friday.

Yes – the Six Grandfathers, or Thunkasila Sakpe, was the name the Lakota Sioux gave this mountain in the Black Hills, a century and a half before the first chisel was struck in the creation of Mount Rushmore in October 1927.

It’s one of many American monuments that’s been caught up in the national debate over how we depict our country’s history and ideals.

Personally, I’m not big on statues or monuments, especially of individual people. On their own, I find many of these testaments lack nuance; exactly how do you balance the glorified image of a Founding Father standing for freedom with the knowledge that they kept people enslaved while doing so, and depict all of that in a hunk of bronze or stone?

It’s for this reason I far prefer museums, which allows us the space to compartmentalize our reverence for historical figures and the grim reality that they were extremely flawed and limited human beings.

But this isn’t a column about this cultural debate. This is a history lesson.

The Six Grandfathers, and the Black Hills as a whole, is sacred to the Lakota people. Before Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt were sculpted, the mountain represented the six sacred directions: west, east, north, south, above, and below.

The U.S. signed a treaty with the Lakota Sioux in 1868, promising the tribe the Black Hills would be their land “in perpetuity,” PBS reported. Of course, that agreement lasted only a decade when gold was found in the mountains, and our government began to force them out. This led directly to the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 and the massacre at Wounded Knee, “where hundreds of unarmed Sioux women, children, and men were shot and killed by U.S. troops” in 1890.

Gutzon Borglum entered the scene when he was hired in 1914 to carve Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson into Georgia’s Stone Mountain, a project sponsored by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan group. It’s unclear how involved with the KKK Borglum was, though it’s been written he was deeply involved in Klan politics.

Before the project even began, though, he was drawn away by South Dakota historian Doane Robinson, who wanted Borglum to carve the likeness of “historic heroes of the West,” writes, including pioneers like Lewis and Clark and Red Cloud, the Lakota Sioux chief that signed the 1868 treaty.

Borglum instead convinced Robinson to let him carve Washington and Jefferson instead, with Roosevelt and Lincoln coming later; the four men are meant to represent “the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States,” Borglum would come to say.

To the Lakota Sioux, though, they represent something much different.

As the commander of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, Washington “ordered the destruction of indigenous communities when it helped the American cause,” declined to protect Native land from encroaching Americans after the war was through, and if tribes were uncooperative in selling land the government wished to buy, would describe them as recalcitrant savages who need to be “extirpated,” author and professor Colin Calloway writes in his book, “The Indian World of George Washington.”

As president, Jefferson seemed to consider indigenous Americans more equal to the white man than some of his peers, but still considered their lifestyle “savage” and wished to “civilize them” through Western European culture. His purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 put the Lakota Sioux directly into the path of the speeding locomotive American history calls “Manifest Destiny” and the eventual destruction of the Six Grandfathers.

Lincoln oversaw the largest mass execution in U.S. history – the Dakota 38. In 1862, the Dakota Sioux raided an American settlement in response to the encroaching government failing to uphold treaties, killing five settlers.. Fighting between the Sioux and Americans lasted about a month before the Sioux surrendered, and after quick (and highly unfair) military tribunals, 303 Sioux were sentenced to die.

The president was unwilling to let all 303 people be executed,, but felt he couldn’t be too lenient, either, deciding only 39 should be killed; one person’s sentence was suspended at the last minute.

And you don’t have to look far into President Roosevelt’s history to see how he felt about indigenous Americans: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are,” he said in a January 1886 speech. His legacy of conservation is also marred, as Roosevelt “systematically marginalized Indians, uprooting them from their homelands to create national parks and monuments,” Indian Country Today reports.

Mount Rushmore and the Six Grandfathers are two sides of the same coin. For America, the monument means freedom and expansion; for many Native Americans, it means oppression and genocide.

It’s no wonder, then, why some people want Mount Rushmore taken down. — it itself is a desecration, a towering reminder of misery and death.

It won’t happen, of course, no matter what party is in charge of the country.

And maybe it shouldn’t — after all, the Six Grandfathers can never be restored to its former glory.

I’d personally like to see a museum built at the monument, one that covers the history of the Six Grandfathers and the Lakota Sioux as thoroughly as the monument’s subjects are revered in our history books. That sounds like a good start, at least.

But this isn’t just about the Six Grandfathers and Mount Rushmore — it’s about how we as a nation celebrate our achievements and recognize our failures.

“For me, and I suspect for many tourists, national memorials and monuments elicit conflicting feelings. There’s pride in our nation’s achievements, but also guilt, regret or anger over the costs of progress and the injustices that still exist,” professor Jennifer Ladino wrote for The Conversation in an article titled, “There’s more than one way to be patriotic. National Parks can show us how.” “Patriotism, especially at sites of shame, can be unsettling – and I see this as a good thing. In my view, honestly confronting the darker parts of U.S. history as well as its best moments is vital for tourism, for patriotism and for the nation.

“This July 4th invites contemplation of what holds us together as a nation during a time of reckoning. I believe Americans should be willing to imagine how a public memorial could be offensive or traumatic. The National Park Service website claims that Mount Rushmore preserves a ‘rich heritage we all share,’ but what happens when that heritage feels like hatred to some people?

“… Visits to memorial sites are helpful for recognizing our interdependence with each other, as inhabitants of a common country. Places like Mount Rushmore are part of our collective past that raise important questions about what unites us today. I believe it’s our responsibility to approach these places, and each other, with both pride and humility.”