Carving The American Colossus

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In late August, 1970, a band of Sioux Indians entered the sacred precincts of a National Memorial in South Dakota and bivouacked on a mountaintop there for several weeks. The precincts were sacred to the Sioux because they are in the heart of the Black Hills, long regarded by their tribe as the dwelling place of Indian gods and spirits. And, as signaled by the apprehensive behavior of park rangers who monitored the Indians closely during their stay, the precincts are also precious to the United States Department of the Interior. For there, looming high above the valley floor, gazing off across hundreds of miles of the South Dakota Badlands, are the gigantic stone faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt hewn from the primeval granite by sculptor Gutzon Borglum in fourteen years of labor on precipitous Mount Rushmore.

The Indians wanted Mount Rushmore “back,” as they put it. What they meant, they explained, was that the entire Black Hills area was guaranteed as Indian territory by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868—a treaty spectacularly ignored after an expedition led by George Armstrong Custer found gold in 1874. They thought it was high time for the government to make some modest compensation for that enormous treaty violation. Beyond that, they were not happy with a monument that celebrates the founding of the white man’s nation (Washington), the acquisition of vast tracts of Indian hunting and living space without regard to Indian wishes (Jefferson), and the consolidation and expansion of the intruders’ domain into the most powerful sovereignty in the world (Lincoln and Roosevelt). “They could just as well have carved this mountain into a huge cavalry boot standing on a dead Indian,” one of the Indians said later.

The Sioux invaders found a comfortable campsite up behind Teddy Roosevelt’s skull, painted “RED POWER” on a nearby expanse of rock, and settled in with food and water transported to them regularly by local compatriots. They did not, as the rangers had feared they might, pour red paint over the great presidential noses or otherwise mutilate the monument; but they did succeed in attracting considerable regional and national attention to the situation of the American Indian today, and in engendering among many people second thoughts about the meaning of Mount Rushmore in the national iconology.

The whole episode would have been deeply disturbing to Gutzon Borglum, who counted himself a close friend of the Sioux, and who despite his foreign-sounding name was almost egregiously American, born in Idaho in 1867 and raised in Nebraska and California. Mount Rushmore was by far his most heroic undertaking—heroic in its proportions, its difficulties, and its artistic symbolism—and he always felt intensely about its import as American mythology. “There on the mountain top,” he wrote in 1940, “as near to Heaven as we could make it, we have carved portraits of our leaders, that posterity and civilization may see hundreds of thousands of years hence what manner of men our leaders were, with a prayer and a belief that there among the clouds they may stand forever, where wind and rain alone shall wear them away.”

Although Borglum had long wanted to sculpt a mountain into a great monument, and in fact had already developed considerable skill as a mountain carver in Georgia, the idea of such a project in the Black Hills was not originally his. It came from Doane Robinson, for many years the state historian of South Dakota and a well-known writer on Western history. In 1923 Robinson had been contemplating the Black Hills Needles, great spires of solid granite that are the residual cores of mountain peaks long since eroded away, and it struck him that some of them might be carved into tremendous historical statues. “In my imagination,” he said, “I can see all the old heroes of the west peering out … Lewis and Clark, Frémont, Jed Smith, Bridger, Sa-kakawea, Red Cloud, and in an equestrian statue, Cody and the overland mail.” Inspired by this heady vision, Robinson sought public support for his idea. The much respected South Dakota senator Peter Norbeck was sympathetic, as were a few regional newspaper editors; but others sputtered about tampering with “nature’s handiwork.” “Man makes statues but God made the Needles,” announced the Hot Springs Star; “Let them alone.”