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The Mt. Rushmore Problem

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There’s no way around it–Mt. Rushmore is a centerpiece of the culture wars. This place means so many different things to so many different people. When the monstrosity was created, it was part of an era where for whites at least, there was a shared vision of America. Liberals and conservatives could more or less unite around blasting the faces of a president into a South Dakota mountain. Of course, Native Americans were completely erased from the conversation. This was part of the same phenomenon that led Arthur Schlesinger to not even mention Indian Removal in The Age of Jackson. This vision of America simply had no place for the tribes in it.

Well, today, we have the tribes making many more political demands and with more money and outside support than in the 1930s. And they have very real demands on what to do with something like Mt. Rushmore. For the Lakota, Mt. Rushmore is a daily site of genocide.

Phil Two Eagle is not opposed to the fact that the giant sculpture of American presidents is a major tourist attraction but he thinks the park should have a different focus: oppression.

“It should be turned into something like the United States Holocaust Museum,” he said. “The world needs to know what was done to us.”

Two Eagle noted what historians have also documented. Hitler got some of his genocidal ideas for ethnic cleansing from 19th and early 20th century US policies against Native Americans.

Two Eagle is Sicangu Lakota and a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. He directs the tribe’s treaty council office which fights to claim sovereignty over lost homeland. He is part of a growing indigenous movement across the US and Canada that is demanding the return of Native American territory seized through broken treaties. And ground zero for the movement is Mount Rushmore.

Opposition is already proving staunch. Yet while Native Americans have been fighting to get their lands back for centuries, indigenous activists say real progress finally seems possible now that Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, is secretary of the interior. As the first Native American to hold a US cabinet position, Haaland oversees 450m acres of federal land – all of it indigenous territory and much of it stolen through broken treaties.

“Having Haaland heading up the Department of Interior is a game changer,” said Krystal Two Bulls, who is Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne and director of NDN Collective’s Land Back campaign, an initiative demanding that governments honor their treaties with Indigenous people. “It opens the door for beginning the healing process. Returning our land is the first step toward reparations.”

It is also worth noting that at this point in our history, Mt. Rushmore is an explicitly right-wing site. When I was there in 2017, there were tons of visitors festooned in Trump gear, in over the top USA! USA! clothing, etc. It’s been taken over as a site for fascist festivities, as Kristi Noem and Trump showed on July 4, 2020. That was not always the case. There might be something lost as the American left openly begins to side with the tribes and other people of color in interpreting our history. What would be lost in the consensus pro-American politics that erased people of color and also gave the left a claim on these spaces. How you evaluate the merits of this claim perhaps will say something about your politics, but it does matter in terms of interpreting these spaces.

Does a nation that does not return Mt. Rushmore to the tribes, at least in some capacity, take Native issues seriously at all? I’d have to say that it does not. The treaties are clear on this point. I would argue that returning much of the Black Hills to the Lakota should be a central part of a leftist agenda. But we should also be clear about the kind of outrage this will cause among those who really want Mt. Rushmore to serve their fascist priorities.

It might be nice to have common spaces in America where we could remember our rosy history together, regardless of political partisanship. But that can probably only happen in a nation where whites across the political spectrum refuse to take our racist history seriously. That’s not acceptable. So here we are.

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