September 26 – October 2, 2020.
South Dakota never shut down due to the pandemic so when we got to Mount Rushmore the first thing we saw was a bulletin board listing ranger talks. Ranger Talks! We love ranger talks and hadn’t been to a one since the beginning of the year. We checked the time, zoomed right past the four giant faces carved on the mountain that everyone had come here to see, and rushed to the next talk.
And it was a good one – all about the controversy of the site. We learned how the idea to memorialize figures in stone came to be and about the controversial sculptor, Gutzon Borglum who had previously been cozying up to the Klu Klux Klan and working on a Confederate memorial on Stone Mountain in Georgia. But what really surprised us was that this National Memorial to four former presidents carved on the bare rock in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota actually belongs, not to the federal government but to the Lakota Indians.
Way back in 1868 the US government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty establishing the Great Sioux Reservation west of the Missouri River which exempted the Black Hills from all white settlement forever. The Black Hills, so named because they look black from a distance, are a sacred area to the Lakota*. But then in 1874 gold was found in “them thar hills” and white people wanted to go dig it up. So the US government took back the Black Hills, sold off 9 million acres of land, and reassigned the Lakota to five smaller reservations in western South Dakota.
The Lakota would eventually sue. And they won, 8 to 1. Almost 100 years later in 1980, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills were illegally taken by the federal government and ordered that the Lakota be paid the initial offering price plus interest, nearly $106 million.
But the Lakota didn’t want money. They wanted their land. The money remains in an interest-bearing account, which, as of 2015, amounts to over $1.2 billion.
We didn’t spend as much time in the Black Hills as we would have liked. We got waylaid in Rapid City and had our sights set on getting somewhere else before the temperatures started to drop. So we missed all the kitschy western tourist towns and a few state and federal parks.
But we did get to drive through some of this beautiful country and visit a few interesting places. Hopefully, we will get a chance to return when we have more time. And who knows, by then, the Black Hills might be under new management.
* The Lakota and the Sioux are one and the same. Many Lakota people prefer to be called Lakota, as Sioux was a disrespectful name given to them by enemies. I am using Lakota here except for the names of the treaty and lawsuit.
Our introduction to the Black Hills came with a 14-mile drive down Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. I had read that the canyon was a good spot for birding. Unfortunately, we didn’t see many birds. It was overcast and threatened to rain all day and since it was the weekend there were lots of people everywhere we went. But still, we found some nice hikes and some beautiful waterfalls.
Sanford Labs Homestake Visitor Center
I found Sanford Labs Homestake Visitor Center when I was looking for a camping spot on the camping and travel app, iOverlander. The description of the site sounded sciency and, bonus, it was free, so we decided to check it out.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
At the dedication at the completion of Thomas Jefferson’s head in 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his speech, “When we get through, there will be something for the American people that will last through not just generations but for thousands and thousands of years, and I think that we can perhaps meditate a little on those Americans ten thousand years from now when the weathering on the face of Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln shall have proceeded to perhaps a depth of a tenth of an inch – meditate and wonder what our descendants, and I think they will still be here, will think about us.”
I’m sure Roosevelt could have never imagined how our country would change in the next 84 years. Or how the people we have memorialize in the past would be viewed in the present. But despite that these days these four old white guys may be looked at a little more critically, Mount Rushmore National Memorial remains an amazing feat of art.
Although the memorial is free to visit. We paid $10 to park.
Sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, chose the faces that went on the side of the mountain. He felt that each one represented the most significant events in US history. Washington represented the birth of the United States. He was a leader in the Revolutionary War to win independence from Great Britain. He would become the United States’ first president in this new democracy. Jefferson represented the expansion of the US. As president, he purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 which doubled the size of the country. Roosevelt represented the development of the US. He was instrumental in negotiating the construction of the Panama Canal, which linked the east and the west. He was known as the “trust buster” for his work to dissolve large corporate monopolies and ensure the rights of the common working man. Lincoln represented the preservation of the US. He led the nation during the Civil War which preserved the Union and would abolish slavery.
Crazy Horse Memorial
About 30 miles down the road from Mount Rushmore, seven years after the National Memorial was completed in 1941, another sculpture began. This one, the Crazy Horse Memorial, was commissioned by Lakota elder, Henry Standing Bear to honor his cousin Crazy Horse, an iconic Lakota warrior. We have written about Crazy Horse previously in our Battle of the Greasy Grass post. Standing Bear wrote to sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski in 1939, saying, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.” Ziolkowski signed on to bring the mountain to life.
Ziolkowski died in 1982 at the age of 74. He knew he would never live to see the completion of the monument so he and his wife filled notebooks with extensive measurements to ensure the continuation of the project. Ruth passed in 2014 but the project continues with the second and third generations of the Ziolkowski family.
The site was a little pricy for us at $35 per car. But the memorial relies solely on donations, revenue from its gift shop, and admission fees. There is a large museum of Native American artifacts, crafts, stories, and photographs. The studio areas were open and many of Ziolkowski’s other works of art were on display.