Why Mount Rushmore Creeps Me Out & How Crazy Horse Makes It Better
Can you guess which monument was carved by a KKK member?
On a recent cross-country trip, I was pretty excited to visit Mount Rushmore, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I looked forward to seeing one of America’s best-known spectacles, a testimony to some of our most famous leaders.
Then I saw it.
It turns out the best, unobscured view of Rushmore may have been the roadside overlook we drove right past, where a few people stood on the cliffside snapping photos. Winding up from there, the road passes through turnstiles and into a multilevel parking lot. From the vantage point of the wide plaza, the gigantic Rushmore itself looks miniscule, hemmed in by tall stone pillars and gift shops selling snacks and knicknacks to the two million sightseers who visit annually. You’ll need to hike for a while to snap a clear picture. Compared to the dazzling natural beauty of the Grand Tetons, Rushmore felt like a tourist trap, a row of majestic peaks utterly conquered by human technology and commerce.
Reading the history of the mountain didn’t make me feel any better.
The US government promised the Black Hills to the Sioux in perpetuity in 1868. They were forced to give them back when gold was discovered there in the 1870s. President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873 determined that Native Americans should be humanely brought “under the benign influences of education and civilization. It is either this or war of extermination.”
Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse led Sioux warriors in a victory over General George Armstrong Custer in 1876 in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Washington accelerated efforts to combat the tribes in the Dakotas, winning its final victory in the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. In his landmark history “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Dee Brown described the “battle” as a massacre of hundreds of unarmed Sioux men, women and children.
While visiting South Dakota to check on property titles for a tin mining company in 1884, New York lawyer Charles E. Rushmore asked his guide Bill Challis what one prominent row of peaks were called. Challis replied, “Never had a name but from now on we’ll call it Rushmore.”
Thus a Yankee lawyer’s name replaced “Six Grandfathers,” which the Lakota Sioux called one of the most sacred mountains in the Black Hills. The state of South Dakota bought Rushmore and the surrounding area in 1912, and named it Custer State Park.
The man who created and carved the national memorial at Rushmore was Gutzon Borglum, a Danish Mormon. He was one of America’s most prominent sculptors at the time. After carving a bust of Abraham Lincoln for President Theodore Roosevelt’s White House, the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1915 invited Borglum to carve the likeness of Confederate General Robert E. Lee into the side of Stone Mountain in Georgia.
While in Georgia, Borglum also joined the Ku Klux Klan. William E. Leuchtenburg, professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes that he may have done so to keep his sponsors happy.
“But he found the Klan in tune also with his own social biases, his conspiracy theories about Jewish bankers…For the moment at least, this mercurial man agreed with most of the Klan’s purposes. During the Klan’s peak years in the mid-twenties, Borglum was a member of its executive committee.”
—William E. Leuchtenburg, “American Places”
South Dakota’s state historian Doane Robinson read about the carvings on Stone Mountain and believed something similar could attract more tourists to the state: “Tourists soon get fed up on scenery unless it has something of special interest connected with it to make it impressive.”
Robinson wrote to Borglum, eventually hiring him to design massive statues on Rushmore. Robinson initially envisioned a monument to heroes of the Old West: Custer, explorers Lewis & Clark, and Sioux Chief Red Cloud. Borglum rejected Robinson’s idea, envisioning a national rather than regional attraction, featuring Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. President Theodore Roosevelt and Vice President Thomas Jefferson were soon added to the proposal.
“Borglum had met and campaigned for Roosevelt, and by invoking that president’s acquisition of the Panama Canal and Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, the Rushmore monument became a story of the expansion of the United States, the embodiment of Manifest Destiny.”
—“American Experience,” PBS
South Dakota’s Native American tribes vehemently opposed the project in their sacred lands. Conservationists also argued against the enterprise.
“When God made our matchless playground, He did not intend that man should even in his wildest ravings dare to come with hammer, chisel, block and tackle, pick and mallet, to profane His age-old record, to profane the face of Rushmore by his puny, pygmy scratches.”
—Prof. John Tjaden, University of South Dakota, 1926
Carving began in 1927 and was completed in 1939. The monument is offensive to the Sioux in at least three ways: It was built on particularly sacred ground?—?which the the government took from them—and it “celebrates the European settlers who killed so many Native Americans and appropriated their land.”
In response to these offenses, Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear in 1939 invited a famous Polish sculptor to design a new monument in the Black Hills, not far from Rushmore. Korczak Ziolkowski had worked at Rushmore for 19 days, until he beat up Borglum’s son Lincoln in a disagreement.
Korczak purchased a mountain and self-financed the sculpture. It will be the largest in human history when complete, dwarfing the Rushmore busts and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. It will depict defiant Sioux Chief Crazy Horse astride a stallion, his arm outstretched, his finger pointing out over the Black Hills and valleys.
The pose was inspired by an encounter Crazy Horse had had with a white trader after the Oglala Sioux had been placed on reservations following the Battle of Little Bighorn.
“The trader taunted Crazy Horse in the Sioux leader’s own tongue by asking, ‘Where are your lands now?’ Crazy Horse gazed at the horizon, pointed over his horse’s head, and proclaimed, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried.’” That line concludes a poem written by Korczak, which will be engraved on the monument when it’s completed.
Korczak was embraced and eventually adopted into a local Native American tribe. He worked on the monument until his death in 1982. He was buried at the foot of the memorial. Korczak’s children continue to work on the monument.
The memorial is not without its own controversy. Some Native Americans say Chief Henry Standing Bear should have conferred with tribal leaders before asking Korczak to build the monument. Others have said the Korczak family may be more interested in earning tourism money than completing the sculpture. (Korczak told his family to take their time.) One Lakota Sioux medicine man wrote that carving up another sacred mountain was “against the spirit of Crazy Horse,” who had told a fellow shaman that he didn’t want a tourist site built in his name.
Others object to Crazy Horse pointing with his index finger, saying that this has historically been considered profane by all Native American tribes.
The Crazy Horse Memorial is a short drive from Mount Rushmore, but visiting it could not feel any more different. The atmosphere there is more reverent than at the bustling Rushmore. The unfinished statue?—?silent, unfinished and gargantuan?—?rises up from the valley. Crazy Horse’s head was completed in 1998, and you can make out the outlines of his horse.
Alongside the objections to the monument, I also witnessed the real pride Native Americans take in the site. A museum holds Native American artifacts as well as mockups of the completed memorial. There is a summer university, scholarship program and a planned medical school for Native Americans. Musicians play tribal music on traditional instruments and educate visitors on Native American culture. There’s a canned food drive for the local community, and those wishing to contribute to the monument’s completion are given the opportunity.
Controversy aside, visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial served as a an emotional salve?—?and a powerful rebuke?—?to the indignities and suffering of Native Americans preserved in stone at the tourist cash cow of Mount Rushmore.