A better understanding of the controversy surrounding Mount Rushmore

Published: Jul. 3, 2020 at 1:47 PM CDT
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As calls grow louder for statues and monuments across the nation to come down, the conversation about Mount Rushmore, and what it stands for, is heating up.

The President attending 4th of July fireworks at the monument is only fanning the flames.

The National Democratic Party is among the latest to chime in this week, criticizing the monument in a tweet, suggesting tomorrow's event 'glorifies white supremacy'.

The tweet has since been taken down, but the conversation remains - what, if anything, should be done about the monument during this time of reckoning with our past and a hope for more common and just ground in the future.

Two tribal historians shared their perspective this week with reporter Carleen Wild and photojournalist Dave Hauk.

Millions from around the globe have come to learn about and experience the monument for themselves since work began in 1927. But to think about a future for Mount Rushmore, both Tamara St. John, a tribal historian for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and a state legislator, and current Secretary of Tribal Affairs for the state, Dave Flute, say we must all better understand and reconcile with its past. Because there is far more to how Mount Rushmore came to be than what is in most of our history books.

The land it sits on, along with the Black Hills, was given to the Sioux by Congress in 1868 through the Fort Laramie Treaty. Gold in the hills, however, led to a series of conflicts and the ultimate taking of the land by the U.S. Government in 1877. To this day, ownership of the Black Hills and the land Mount Rushmore sits on remains the subject of a legal dispute between the government and the Sioux.

The US court of claims in 1946 reheard a case dismissed by the Sioux in 1942. The question before them: Did the U.S. government unconstitutionally take the Black Hills from the Sioux, thereby entitling the latter with just compensation?

The answer in that case: Yes.

"The Court held that the Court of Claims, in determining that the United States' acquisition of the Black Hills constituted a taking compensable under the just compensation clause, properly inquired into whether Congress made a good faith effort to give the Sioux the full value of the Black Hills, an essential element of the inquiry involving a determination of the adequacy of the consideration the government gave for the Indian lands it acquired, the presumption that Congress acted in perfectly good faith in its dealings and that it exercised its best judgment being inappropriate in this situation. Consequently, the Court ruled that the government was obligated under the Fifth Amendment to make just compensation to the Sioux, including an award of interest to the Sioux on the principal sum."

The Sioux were awarded at least $17.5 million, without interest, for damages under the Indian Claims Commission Act. To date, the Sioux have not taken a penny of that award.

"As far as rectifying that situation, I'm very pro-sovereignty. The tribes that signed the treaty that gave them that land, the sacred Black Hills, it has to be discussed with them. It's between them and the American government as to how that's dissolved. It's a legal document," said St. John.

But the monument itself, as calls grow for it to come down - Secretary Flute offers this perspective:

"It needs to remain there so that people can be reminded. Like my family - during Lincoln's time, he was known as the Great Emancipator, he freed the slaves. He's also the President that had to make a decision because of the Dakota Conflict, and more than 300 Dakota were taken as prisoners, marched across the country, and left in crow Creek. At the time then, he was also the one to order the execution of the 38 Dakota. It's history, and it's difficult history. But my father would use that monument as a teaching tool. He told us that yes, that man freed the slaves, he did great things. But he also ordered the execution of 38 Dakota. Only my dad didn't just end it at that. He didn't criticize any of the four faces up there. He expanded on it. My dad was Chairman at the time too, and he started teaching me at a very young age that politics and being in government, like our tribal people are, they are a political organization. You have to make decisions sometimes that are difficult when looking at the broader picture. I'm an Afghanistan war veteran and there were decisions made that were unfortunate. Sometimes people die. But when you're in these types of situations - have you ever had to make a decision that a person's life is at stake to bring balance to a bigger issue? It's not easy. So I would argue, as a historian, every one of those Presidents, every President, every Chairman, every leader on the battlefield has had to make a difficult decision that is sometimes unhealthy in other people's perspectives because they haven't been there."

A better understanding of that perspective and adding more of the Native American history to the full story of the monument, St John believes is what might be needed to find healing in such a sacred place.

St John added, "I'm all about educating and, my personal feelings, I've never advocated for the destruction. I can understand its value in American History and how it's widely understood by many but let's add the tribal history to it, let's look at that, allow that tribal voice to be heard and be a part of the interpretation of that site. I think it's something - I work with regularly, the National Park Service, and I think those things can be done."