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.”