Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore, conceived in the 1920s as a tourist attraction, was quickly recast by the sculptor as an icon of democracy, freedom and hope.


Mount Rushmore, conceived in the 1920s as a tourist attraction, was quickly recast by the sculptor as an icon of democracy, freedom and hope. The history of the Black Hills and the sense of manifest destiny that haunts the monument, however, render the faces more ironic than iconic. In a travel narrative combining personal experience with extensive research and investigation, Jesse Larner’s Mount Rushmore, published by NationBooks, examines the complex stories that have been edited out of the standard guidebooks. The following is an excerpt from chapter two. Click here to buy a copy of Mount Rushmore online.

Gutzon Borglum, who made it into modern times, was twenty-three years old on the day Big Foot’s people died. Less than forty years later, he was raising Presidential images in the Black Hills, Wounded Knee a minor event against the backdrop of his larger historical narrative.

Mount Rushmore is a kind of forgetting, a new chapter; and there are other kinds of forgetting around here. One kind was brought by the missionaries. The process of “civilizing” the Dakota Indians, that branch of the Sioux family that stayed in Minnesota, had begun before the Dakota Territory was even open to white settlers: it began as the missionaries moved in. Typical was the work of Stephen Riggs, who learned Dakota and translated the New Testament into that language (he was sharp enough to translate from the original Greek, not the King James). He also translated Pilgrim’s Progress into Dakota. What effect this had on converting the Indians is not known.

In addition to translating religious texts, Riggs wrote a primer on the Dakota language. Here he renders “tatanka” (bull buffalo) as “ox,” “tipi” as “house” (he includes pictures of each object, in primer style). He thoughtfully includes Dakota words for “yoke” and “plow,” which must have been newly minted for the civilizing mission. The association of the farming life with religious virtue was nothing new.

It would be easy to consider this sort of cultural bullying a dim remnant of a dishonorable past. A Rapid City Monsignor helped me to get over this idea. When I asked him if he would really like to see an entirely Catholic world, with all other religious philosophies eliminated, he seemed almost irritated. “That’s a loaded question. Of course I do. As Christians, that’s what we work for.”

Sitting Bull took a different view. “Our religion seems foolish to you,” he once told a government schoolteacher. “But so does yours to me.” Since whites were crazy and irrational by definition, Sitting Bull had little interest in what they did in their spare time, and was willing to live and let live where religion was concerned.

Sometimes little incidents in Rapid will tie together all these things, the nearness of the past and the ideological legacy of colonialism. One warm August evening I went out for a walk. I took a book along and cut through the alleyway behind my house. Two Indian women were sitting on a low cinder block wall, an old woman and a young woman. I nodded as I passed by. The young woman called out, “Hello! Do you want to talk? Come on over and shake my hand.”

I came over and she introduced herself. “I’m Jacky, and this is Grandma. She’s adopted me.”

Jacky asked me what the book I was carrying was about. I showed her. A little embarrassed, I said, “It’s about Wounded Knee.”

Jacky said, “I don’t know why people have to keep thinking about the past, letting things in the past get them all messed up nowadays. Why can’t people just live in the present, live for the future? Take me, now; I’m three-quarters Indian, but I don’t speak Indian, just understand a little from what Grandma’s taught me. My parents spoke only Indian, but I went to the boarding school and I learned English. And I believe in the Bible, I know the Lord.”

Grandma said, “You were given away.”

“I was not! I was not at all given away! That is not true!”

Grandma was thumbing through my book. She came to a section on Sitting Bull and began reading it very intently.

I said, “Tatanka Yotanka, right?”


“Sitting Bull.”

She stared at me for a second, trying to figure out what I’d said. Then, “TAKHtanka iYOtakhta! I was there! I was there, at Wounded Knee. I am seventy-three years old. He was my chief. I knew them, I knew them all: Sitting Bull, Big Foot… I am from Standing Rock, you betcha!”

She wasn’t really there. If she was seventy-three in 1997, she was born thirty-four years after Sitting Bull died, which was two weeks exactly before Wounded Knee; the closeness of the dates is anything but coincidental. But I had sense enough to realize that the literal truth was not what was important here.

I said, “It’s not really a good book… there are better books.”

“Yeah… it’s BULLSHIT!…and then, shy and embarrassed like a little girl, “Oh, pardon my French… I am a real, true Indian woman. I used to wear my hair in braids, wear moccasins like this. Sitting Bull was a great leader, a great man. He worked for his people. They killed him because his brother, you know, he turned him in. From Standing Rock, near Fort Yates. My reservation.”

“You are Hunkpapa?” I asked. Sitting Bull’s people.

“Hunkpapa, you betcha.”

When I was little I had a book about Sitting Bull, and another one about Buffalo Bill. One of the things that amazed me about the life of Sitting Bull was how dramatically his world changed around him in a single generation. As a boy, his people hunted with bows and arrows as well as rifles; he rarely saw a white man or any white-made articles other than rifles, kettles and beads until he was in his teens. The Sioux ruled an enormous grassland empire, from Canada to Missouri, from Minnesota to Montana. As an old man his people were confined on ever-shrinking reservations, he himself was forced to become a farmer, a great humiliation, and the warrior friends of his youth had nothing to do but hang around the agencies and wait for their handouts.

When he had a scrap with a rival leader, it was the white agent who passed judgment on him, he who had once been proclaimed the principal leader of the Sioux in a great conclave at one of the Lakota sacred sites, Bear Butte-Mato Paha-near the present town of Sturgis, South Dakota.

Here in South Dakota, this not-so-very-old woman obviously venerated Sitting Bull, his name moved her deeply, but there was more to it than that. She felt she knew him, knew him intimately, that he personally protected her and watched over her. And maybe she did indeed know the man he was, although their lives did not overlap in time; maybe she knew him better than any white biographer ever could.

It is conceivable, barely, that people still alive saw him or were at Wounded Knee. The officially oldest person in the world died recently at 117. Sitting Bull was assassinated December 15, 1890, and the massacre at Wounded Knee took place on December 30, 1890. So much can a life span encompass.

“You going back to the mission?” Grandma asked Jacky.

“Yes, they’ll come looking for me.”

“You don’t have to go!” You don’t have to go in their damn program!”

“I want to go back, eat some protein. I’m gonna cook some kidneys, kick back, watch some TV. It’s OK. They’ll come looking for me about 10:30.” She sounded relaxed, complacent, almost dreamy.

“I will never go in that mission!” said Grandma, and she meant it.

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