The majority of Americans are familiar with Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota. What they don’t know is that this almost 80-year-old monument has a very controversial history.
Some view Mount Rushmore as nothing more than a monument that pays tribute to some of the nation’s leaders. However, it has also been the subject of intense scrutiny, as it was sculpted on indigenous lands and created by an artist with a questionable past.
Before it was known as Mount Rushmore, members of the Lakota nation referred to the granite formation as “Tunkasila Sakpe Paha,” which translates to “Six Grandfathers Mountain.”
Donovin Sprague, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and head of Sheridan College in Wyoming’s history department, has explained that this was a place dedicated to prayer and devotion for the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho nations.
In the late 1800s, European-American settlers trespassed through the Black Hills. As a result, wars broke out between them and the area’s native populations.
In 1884, a New York attorney named Charles Rushmore visited the area with the intent of striking a deal and establishing a tin mine. Mount Rushmore would later be named after him.
Learning about the theft of the Lakota land, upon which Mount Rushmore is built, is surprising enough to many Americans. What they also might not realize, though, is that the monument they know and love was sculpted by a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
An active KKK member, Gutzon Borglum was also a sculptor. He helped to create the Stone Mountain Project, which featured carvings of Confederate leaders in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Borglum was fired from the Stone Mountain Project for “mismanagement of funds,” “offensive egotism,” and “delusions of grandeur.” After the firing, he fled the state and later agreed to work on Mount Rushmore.
Borglum technically never finished his work. Originally, he planned to sculpt the four presidents down to their waists. In the end, he settled for the faces and built a room behind them to store historical artifacts.
The project was declared complete on October 31, 1941. It then opened to the public, even though the Lakota nation was still embroiled in a drawn-out legal battle with the U.S. government to try and win back their land.
Mount Rushmore remains a topic of controversy today. On July 4, 2020, when Former U.S. President Donald Trump planned a visit to the area, mass protests led by activists and indigenous peoples broke out in the area and the road to the monument was blocked.
Many protestors and activists have called for the monument to be torn down so the land can be returned to its original owners. Others have pushed for its expansion so it can include representation of the Lakota people and other indigenous tribes.
At this point, it’s unclear what the future holds for Mount Rushmore. What is clear to most scholars and activists, though, is that more people must learn the truth about its history.