How Mount Rushmore Became Mount Rushmore

This year, for the first time in more than a decade, there will be a major fireworks display to commemorate Independence Day at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

The sculpture features the faces of four American presidents — Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln — carved into a granite slope over the Black Hills of South Dakota. In the eight decades since the carving was completed, it has never been without controversy.

So when President Trump announced in May that he would attend the festivities there, it invited even more scrutiny of the monument’s history, the leaders it celebrates, the sculptor who created it and the land it towers over.

Native Americans have long criticized the sculpture, in part because it was built on what had been Indigenous land. And more recently, amid a nationwide movement against racism that has toppled statues commemorating Confederate generals and other historical figures, some activists have called for Mount Rushmore to close.

During the 1920s, a historian in South Dakota, Doane Robinson, was mulling ideas for a monument that would draw tourists to his state.

Mr. Robinson originally envisioned a sculpture memorializing figures of the American West, such as the explorers Lewis and Clark or the Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud. But the sculptor who was ultimately chosen for the project, Gutzon Borglum, settled on a concept to pay tribute to four former commanders in chief.

“He picked four presidents he thought represented major accomplishments in the American story,” said Gene A. Smith, a professor of U.S. history at Texas Christian University.

Before he was recruited to create Mount Rushmore, Mr. Borglum had been involved with another project: an enormous bas-relief at Stone Mountain in Georgia that memorialized Confederate leaders.

It was eventually completed without him, but Mr. Borglum formed strong bonds with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and participated in their meetings, in part to secure funding for the Stone Mountain project. He also espoused white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideas, according to excerpts from his letters included in “Great White Fathers,” a book by the writer John Taliaferro about the history of Mount Rushmore.

After the sculpting of the Black Hills monument began in 1927, a women’s rights advocate named Rose Arnold Powell fought to include a likeness of the suffragist Susan B. Anthony. She enlisted the help of a first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote to Mr. Borglum in support of the idea in 1936. He opposed it, and a congressional bill to add Anthony’s face stalled after the House Appropriations Committee said funding would be limited to the work already in progress.

Work on the massive monument was arduous, spanning 14 years of dynamite and jackhammering. The project slogged on through the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II; through the difficulties that forced builders to destroy an early attempt at Jefferson’s face and start again; and through the death of Mr. Borglum, whose work was taken up by his son Lincoln.

An early plan to carve the presidents down to their waists was scrapped, and the project was finished in 1941. As more highways were built and road tripping became a national pastime, Mount Rushmore cemented its place as a must-see destination — a grandiose piece of Americana covering two square miles of granite and attracting more than two million tourists annually.

Independence Day fireworks became an annual draw to the monument beginning in 1998, but they were stopped in 2010 because of concerns about sparking wildfires. In 2016, a report from the U.S. Geological Survey found that past pyrotechnic displays had probably caused higher concentrations of a contaminant called perchlorate in the groundwater there.

Mr. Trump has tweeted in support of “BIG FIREWORKS” returning to the monument, and when Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, a Republican, announced last year that the pyrotechnics would be back in 2020, she expressed gratitude to the president “for helping us make this happen.”

Mount Rushmore is built on land that had belonged to the Lakota tribe. “Wherever you go to connect to God, that’s what the Black Hills are to the Lakota,” said Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and the president of NDN Collective, an Indigenous activist group.

Prospectors seized the land during a gold rush in the 1870s, violating the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868, which recognized the Black Hills as belonging to Native Americans, Mr. Tilsen said in an interview.

Over a century later, the site was occupied by a group of Native Americans protesting treaty violations, and a 1980 Supreme Court decision upheld a ruling that more than $100 million should be given in compensation to eight tribes for the illegal seizure.

Critics of the monument have also taken issue with the men whose faces were etched into the granite. Mr. Borglum chose Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, he said, because they embodied “the founding, expansion, preservation and unification of the United States.”

But each of these titans of American history has a complicated legacy. Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders. Roosevelt actively sought to Christianize and uproot Native Americans as the United States expanded, Professor Smith said. “He was a racist,” he added.

“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every 10 are,” Roosevelt said in an 1886 speech. “And I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th.”

And although Lincoln was behind the Emancipation Proclamation — a move some have characterized as reluctant and late — he has been criticized for his response to the so-called Minnesota Uprising, in which more than 300 Native Americans were sentenced to death by a military court after being accused of attacking white settlers in 1862.

Lincoln said he found a lack of evidence in most of the cases and reduced the number of condemned to 38, who were hanged in what was thought to be the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Mr. Tilsen said recent efforts to confront racial injustice in the United States could provide an opportunity to reconsider the monument’s future. “Mount Rushmore needs to be closed as a national monument, and the land itself needs to be returned to the Indigenous people,” he said.

In a statement on Monday, Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, called the monument a “brand on our flesh” that needed to be removed.

“Visitors look upon the faces of those presidents and extol the virtues that they believe make America the country it is today,” he said. “Lakota see the faces of the men who lied, cheated and murdered innocent people whose only crime was living on the land they wanted to steal.”

Professor Smith said reparations could be made to the tribes “in an attempt to make amends for our greediness and our unjustified taking of their land.”

He said Mount Rushmore offered an opportunity to learn about American history, including the country’s wrongdoings. “We can leave a monument where it’s at, as long as it has a proper contextual label on it,” he said.

Some context already exists in the form of an enormous, unfinished carving of the Oglala Lakota chief Crazy Horse, who resisted white settlers. The memorial was begun in the Black Hills in 1948 but remains incomplete, with only the face visible.

Visitors to the area can also learn about the Lakota people and the Black Hills through programs led by park rangers, said Maureen McGee-Ballinger, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service. More information about Mount Rushmore’s “pre-carving era” could be added in the future, she said.

State leaders have resisted calls to close Mount Rushmore. Responding to the toppling of other monuments and describing “threats” to the memorial, Ms. Noem said in a recent statement, “Not on my watch.”

“We will do everything in our power to make sure that Mount Rushmore remains as majestic and inspiring as it is today,” she said. “The men honored on Mount Rushmore weren’t perfect; nobody is.”

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