The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech showed why our battle over history is so fraught

Mount Rushmore embodies America’s promise — and its failings

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump stand during the national anthem at Mount Rushmore on Friday. (Alex Brandon/AP)

President Trump marked the July 4 weekend by journeying to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, site of the 60-foot faces of four American presidents chiseled into some of the oldest exposed granite on Earth. Looming over his visit, which included a military flyover and fireworks display, however, was the tie between the taking of the Black Hills — where Mount Rushmore is located — from the Great Sioux Nation and the Black Lives Matter protests across the country.

While Trump proclaimed there was no “better place to celebrate America’s independence” and saw his trip as a way to celebrate that “no nation has done more to advance the human condition,” the monument’s history and the views of head sculptor John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum tell a different tale, one that squarely fits into the debates of the past month over monuments, memory and white supremacy.

The Great Sioux Nation consider the Black Hills a place of refuge that provides food, water, shade and sites to perform sacred rites. The hills belonged to the Sioux under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that stated the territory consisting of what is today western South Dakota was “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of the Sioux Nation.

Following the Panic of 1873, however, the United States was starved for gold specie to back up its paper currency. So in July 1874, Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry set out on an expedition to “examine” the Black Hills. He brought with him a pair of gold miners. After the expedition discovered gold in the hills, as one dispatch put it, “right from the grass roots,” there was immense pressure on the Grant administration to annex the mountain range through war or treaty.

After negotiations to cede the hills collapsed, President Ulysses S. Grant convened confidential meetings to draw up battle plans. Grant mobilized the army in February 1876 to corral tribal members hunting on their own land onto reservations. The series of skirmishes from this mobilization included Custer’s annihilation at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.

Following national furor over Custer’s defeat, Congress in 1877 unilaterally removed the Black Hills from the boundaries of the Fort Laramie Treaty. This expropriation enabled boom towns, mining camps and settlers to proliferate. The infamous mining town Deadwood put a $50 bounty on Indians captured dead or alive, with one resident stating that “killing Indians was conducive to the health of the community.”

The creation of Mount Rushmore in the 1920s attempted to gloss over this violent history with triumphant narratives of western expansion and freedom. Historian Doane Robinson, who had written on South Dakota history, came up with the idea in 1923. Robinson envisioned a memorial directing tourism to a Midwestern state experiencing early symptoms of the Great Depression because of diminishing production prices crippling South Dakota’s farm economy. Robinson wrote to U.S. Sen. Peter Norbeck of South Dakota that the handiwork of one sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, would “‘sell’ the Black Hills and [Custer State] Park as nothing else could.”

Borglum was, in the words of a recent profile of the memorial, a “larger-than-life weirdo.” Born into a polygamous Mormon family near Ovid, Idaho, to Danish immigrants in 1867, Borglum would go on to become a confidant of presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. He was a barnstormer for the National Progressive Party and agrarian Nonpartisan League, an aviation aficionado and engineer, and servant of the second Ku Klux Klan.

Borglum originally envisioned Mount Rushmore as a shrine to the westward course of empire. He explained to an audience in Rapid City, S.D., in 1925 that the monument would honor the “empire builders” by celebrating the “founder” and “savior” of America — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln respectively — and Thomas Jefferson, “the first great expansionist” who had secured the Louisiana Purchase. The fourth president who would be featured, Borglum’s friend Roosevelt, had “thrust himself upon the western plains” as a grieving younger man mourning the deaths of his wife and mother, and had expanded the American empire via the Panama Canal. The sculptor proclaimed, “If you carve … these empire-builders the whole world will speak of South Dakota.”

Americans embraced Borglum’s vision for his sculpture. When President Calvin Coolidge chose to vacation in the Black Hills in 1927, he gave a speech at the site emphasizing that the monument was to be carved on a mountain “no white man had ever beheld” in the times of Washington, in a territory “acquired by the action of Jefferson,” which “remained an almost unbroken wilderness beyond the days of Lincoln, which was especially beloved by Roosevelt.” Coolidge was asking his audience to conceptualize the scope and triumph of Manifest Destiny — the idea that America’s advancement westward to the Pacific was ordained by God.

And this theme didn’t fade with time. In 1991, at the 50th anniversary of the completion of the monument, President George H.W. Bush reiterated this history. Bush mentioned Jefferson had “expanded our boundaries forever” through the Louisiana Purchase, that Lincoln expanded the “technological frontier” via the Transcontinental Railroad and Roosevelt was a “warrior” who “cut the Panama Canal out of the wilderness.”

President Trump also invoked this history during his blistering speech at the monument.

To many Americans — including Trump — Mount Rushmore embodies America’s founding creed: “justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity.” The trip to Mount Rushmore is a near religious experience for some. George H.W. Bush quoted an unnamed person saying that making the pilgrimage to Mount Rushmore offered “a moment of communion with the very soul of America.”

But this idea of Mount Rushmore as a goosebump-inducing holy site to these liberal and patriotic ideals ignores that the land was stolen from the Sioux Nation — turning the site into a “landscape of denial” in the words of sociologist James Loewen.

Indeed, in 1980, the Supreme Court ruled the acquisition of Mount Rushmore unconstitutional. In the Court’s opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun described the United States’ procurement of the Black Hills as unconscionable, stating it “a more ripe and rank case of dishonest dealings [that] may never be found in our history.” The court granted the Sioux Nation $105 million for the Black Hills and $40 million for lands taken east of the hills with retroactive interest. The Sioux, after some debate, refused the payment in favor of getting the land back.

In 1987, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) introduced a bill in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that called for 1.3 million acres of the Black Hills to return to jurisdiction under a Sioux National Council, while allowing for Mount Rushmore to remain under the authority of the National Park Service (the Sioux Council, however, would operate and profit from concession sales). But the bill died in committee. A similar bill has not been introduced since.

Recently, some tribal leaders have called for the removal of the monument itself. Local indigenous journalists still print full copies of the Bradley bill for their readers, maintaining the hope that someday another senator will attempt to address this grievous wrong.

As the protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd force us to reckon with our history, Americans face two choices: We can acknowledge the sordid chapters in our history, which sit alongside our more noble values and actions, and attempt to right wrongs, or we can continue to ignore the real story of our past, further fracturing our country. Mount Rushmore is, as one author put it, a Rorschach test for this interpretation: Does it represent American liberty, democracy and justice? Or, as Borglum articulated, does it represent conquest, empire and expropriation?

Trump made it clear which interpretation he embraces, promising that Mount Rushmore would “never be desecrated.”

“These heroes will never be defamed. Their legacy will never ever be destroyed. Their achievements will never be forgotten, and Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom,” he said.

But the history is far more complex, and as Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, put it: “Nothing stands as a greater reminder” that the United States “cannot keep a promise or treaty than the faces carved into our sacred land on what the United States calls Mount Rushmore.”

Members of the Sioux Nation like Frazier continue to fight for the return of their stolen land, as they have since 1877.