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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

Dispossession and Empire: The Founding Fathers of Mount Rushmore (and beyond)

Why are those four men up there?

William Zinsser, American Places

Beyond discussions of who in the context of the War of Independence and the early republic is and should be commemorated as a founder of the US, there have also been discussions of which more recent historical figures should be added to the canon of the most important founders and preservers of the nation. One of the most extraordinary examples concerning these ongoing discussions is the controversial Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. While

South Dakota’s state historian Doane Robinson originally planned to boost state tourism by having figures from local history carved into the Black Hills, sculptor Gutzon Borglum gave the project a national rather than regional focus and turned it into “a colossal undertaking commemorating the idea of union” (Bor- glum qtd. in Bergman, “Can Patriotism” 92). Construction began in the 1920s and was concluded in 1941 by Borglum’s son, aptly named Lincoln. The sculpture consists of the faces of four presidents carved into Mount Rushmore: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, who signify the “founding, growing, preservation, and development” (ibid.) of the United States of America; Washington clearly symbolizes the nation’s founding, Jefferson its expansion (via the Louisiana Purchase), Lincoln the ‘preservation’ of the Union, and Roosevelt, again, expansion of American hegemony. Thus, each in his own way contributed to the existence and expansion of the US as empire. Simon Schama refers to Mount Rushmore as a “landscape myth” (Landscape 15) which in sheer scale suggests the “sculptor’s ambition to proclaim the continental magnitude of America as the bulwark of its democracy” (ibid. 15-16), and many other scholars have also described the monument more or less critically along those lines: as a patriotic icon and “a site of national symbolism” (Bergman, “Can Patriotism” 89), as “patriarchy fixed in stone” (cf. Boime’s article of the same title), or as a “commemoration of US expansionism” and “a monument to imperialism” (Bergman, “Can Patriotism” 94). Tom Saya considers Mount Rushmore a “glittering billboard of imperial supremacy” (“Whiteness” 145). Blair and Michel regard Mount Rushmore as a “shorthand for patriotism” (“Rushmore Effect” 156) and “as constituting a dwelling place of national character, a construction of the national ethos” (ibid. 159). Alfred Runte sees US national parks as compensating for the absence of castles, ancient ruins, and cathedrals in the US, and Mount Rushmore seems to be a particularly grand example of this kind of compensation (cf. National Parks). Along those lines, William Zinsser refers to Mount Rushmore as “four pharaohs in the sky” (American Places 6). Many scholars note that it is the sheer size that creates the quasisublime character and aesthetic experience of the monument while diverting attention from its political implications:

Like Disneyland, Mount Rushmore transformed history into theatre, something only a megalomaniacal actor with boundless energy and confidence could have pulled off. [...] Mount Rushmore, like the Statue of Liberty, succeeds primarily through the impact of scale rather than through its aesthetic quality. (Boime, “Patriarchy” 149)

Illustration 5: The Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Photograph by Jim Bowen (2005).

Perhaps not surprisingly, for the entire duration of the construction (1927-41) and even after its completion, the monument has been a matter of contention. The logic of empire resides in its scope as much as in its location, as it is built on land belonging to and considered holy by the Lakota:

It seems difficult to imagine now [...] that there was not substantial negative reaction to the memorial’s theme [...]. It is especially astonishing when we take into consideration the irony of location. Here was a planned monument honouring “continental expansion,” sited in a territory that, by treaty, still belonged to the Lakota, and that the local Native people considered consecrated ground. (Blair and Michel, “Rushmore Effect” 169)

The Lakota referred to the Black Hills into which Borglum carved the ‘White Fathers’ as the ‘Six Grandfathers,’ and the site for them clearly had a spiritual connection. When dedicating the monument in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge wore an Indian headdress to symbolically give credit to and appease indigenous protest and resentment. In hindsight, this form of ‘playing Indian’ seems to mock the protesters.

The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie limited the land ownership of the Sioux to the Great Sioux Reservation, a region west of the Missouri River which included the Black Hills. This treaty was violated during the years of the gold rush by settlers whose presence was validated by new treaties and forced requisitions of Native land through legislation enacted by the US Congress in 1877, 1889, and 1890. The 1877 usurpation of the Black Hills is still considered by the Lakota an illegal act for which they have refused compensation in the amount of $106 million in 1980, and they continue to demand the return of the land (cf. Lazarus, Black Hills/White Justice 38).

Thus, from its very inception, the monument has been viewed by the Lakota and other tribes as a symbol of dispossession and oppression. Throughout its construction and again with new urgency since the 1970s, Native Americans have challenged the rightfulness, validity, and legitimacy of the memorial. To Franklin Roosevelt’s calling Mount Rushmore the “shrine of democracy,” Dennis Bank, leader of the American Indian Movement, has responded by calling it a “hoax of democracy” (qtd. in Fleming, “Mount Rushmore;” cf. also Bergman, “Can Patriotism” 99); the sculpted faces have also been labeled “faces of killers” and “national graffiti” desecrating Native sacred ground as well the “white faces” of “the founding terrorists” (Perrottet, “Mt. Rushmore”).

The resistance to the transformation of Native sacred ground into an American civil religious monument opens up a discussion of indigenous history and its presence and role in the processes of founding. In Forced Founders, Woody Holton has argued that indigenous peoples, usually marginalized in canonical accounts of the American Revolution, were in fact instrumental for bringing about the events of 1775. According to Holton, the revolutionary effort itself was a strategy of the white gentry to contain the pressures of Native claims. He thus holds that the catalyst of the Revolution was Native action and sees the Founding Fathers as reacting to their pressures rather than taking a “confident step” toward independence (Forced Founders 164). Clearly, the revolutionary events were not beneficial for the indigenous population, as its claims and pressures were contained and repelled after the founding even as it had been involved in the process: it is still little known today (and the object of controversy) that representatives of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes were asked to attend the constitutional meetings and that the Iroquois longhouse served as a model for the framing of the US Constitution (cf. Grinde and Johansen, Exemplar; Starna and Hamell, “History;” Johansen, Forgotten Founders).

In this light, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial may appear as a celebration of the (white) American triumph over the native population of North

America. Symbolically, the monument has been the “battleground for defining the very nature of American society” (Jacobson, Place 23).

As controversial as the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the initiative of eight chiefs of the Lakota tribe to counter the monument by a Crazy Horse Memorial to display Native heroism in similar fashion to Borglum’s project (cf. Crazy Horse Memorial website). The work on this counter-monument, which is to even exceed the Mount Rushmore monument in size and scope, began in 1948 and is ongoing. This project has been criticized by Native representatives as imitating the megalomania of white memorial culture and as giving a distorted sense of ‘Indianness.’

To this day, information and orientation films at Mount Rushmore do not acknowledge Native land rights, ongoing legal disputes, and the larger history of empire and dispossession paradigmatically revealed in the monument. Instead, the self-representations in the expository material at the visiting center have moved in a mildly revisionist manner from championing Borglum and his notion of American greatness to stressing the hardships of those workers who labored in the mountain (cf. Bergman, “Can Patriotism” 104). This more recent bottom-up perspective may present a more ambiguous view of the monument by acknowledging the plight and death toll of the workers, yet it does not pose a radical critique of the foundational character of the monument itself, as it still focuses on its genesis rather than on its legitimacy. Today, Mount Rushmore still draws millions of visitors each year. In many ways, tourism of this sort - visiting this monument or any other of the numerous Founding Fathers heritage sites - is a cultural, even civil religious practice that thrives on national myths such as that of the Founding Fathers creating tourist destinations, and thus is also a form of nationalist consumerism.

Another controversy surrounding Mount Rushmore concerns the question of its patriarchal bias. Rose Arnold Powell for example campaigned for the inclusion of women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony on Mount Rushmore: “I protest with all my being against the exclusion of a woman from the Mount Rushmore group of Great Americans. [...] Future generations will ask why she was left out of the memorial [...] if this blunder is not rectified” (qtd. in Schama, Landscape 385). Even though Powell spent much of her life lobbying for Anthony’s inclusion in the sculpture and was able to enlist considerable public support for her cause, she was put off time and again by Borglum and others (Borglum’s compromise proposal to have Anthony’s head carved into the back of the mountain, of course, was unsatisfactory). The inclusion of Anthony as a Founding Mother would certainly have given the monument a decidedly different twist so radically different, in fact, that in hindsight it seems obvious that Powell’s plea had no chance of success. The Mount Rushmore National Memorial thus personifies the patriarchal myth of American genesis and continued American greatness as a group of white men, although some early visitors to the monument actually thought that a female figure was included: “[Jefferson] appears younger and more feminine than the other Presidents, partly because of his wig. Many early visitors were disappointed. They said it wasn’t a good likeness of Martha Washington” (Zinsser, American Places 11).

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial may easily be considered the most spectacular and controversial project of commemoration in the 20th century. Its popularity was further enhanced by being included in many cultural productions, for example in the climactic finale of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller North by Northwest (1959). But it has also frequently become the object of caricature, parody, and ridicule, for instance in the films Mars Attacks! (1996) and Team America: World Police (2004).

Way beyond Mount Rushmore, the Founding Fathers continued to figure in narratives, plays, and films throughout the 20th century. Just to mention one more example: the musical libretto 1776 (1969) by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards is a semi-comical and quasi-campy rendering of the events leading to the Declaration of Independence. After a steady trickle of popular commemoration in the 20th century, a new popular Founding Fathers ‘cult’ sets in at the beginning of the 21st century: founders chic.

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