THERE ARE AMERICAN INDIANS today who would not object if the four presidents’ faces on Mt. Rushmore were blown to bits. Some, in fact, would dance for joy.
I think they are too proud.
Indians are not the only people who think about smashing foreign icons. Such things have happened in other parts of the world quite recently.
In February 2001, the Taliban blew up two colossal statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan. They were priceless art treasures, dating from the 3rd century AD.
But in the eyes of Mullah Mohammed Omar, they were nothing more than foreign idols, forbidden by Islam. He ordered their destruction.
Not since the days of Byzantine Emperor Leo III (717-741) had there been such a destructive campaign against religious images.
Leo, an Orthodox Christian, believed that the use of images for worship was idolatrous, forbidden by the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-6). His campaign largely destroyed the Byzantine arts of early Eastern Europe.
Such vandalistic urges are not unknown in many parts of the world. And they are certainly known in the Dakotas.
The faces of Mt. Rushmore were carved into the Black Hills, considered sacred by the Sioux Indians. To the Sioux, the Black Hills were comparable to the Garden of Eden, the birthplace of humanity in their stories and legends. To most Indians, the giant sculpture of U.S. presidents was a desecration.
The modern world was dismayed at the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhas.
But no one seemed terribly upset when Mr. Rushmore was carved.
After all, Indians were a defeated people. The conqueror has the power to do what he wants.
President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the project in 1927. There were few protests. It was a different world from today.
Leftists were busy organizing unions. Democrats were preoccupied attending Ku Klux Klan rallies.
There was one woman named Cora Johnson, an early environmentalist, who condemned the sculpture project in the Hot Springs Star. She called it a desecration of the landscape.
Sculptor Gutzon Borglum – the son of Danish Mormon immigrants, and the mastermind of the Mt. Rushmore carving – dismissed her as an "agent of evil."
As work proceeded on the great project, the booming ‘20s came to an end. The stock market crashed. The Depression dried up most funding. Yet Borglum was still able to draw $836,000 from Congress. Total cost was nearly $1 million, spanning 14 years.
As far as I can tell, history has not recorded the reaction of the Sioux Indians, at the time. In 1927, many Indians would still have remembered the wars and massacres of the 19th century. Perhaps they had little energy left to worry about the jackhammers at Mt. Rushmore.
But many Indians today talk about the sculpture, and they ask, "Why the Black Hills?" Why did the U.S. government choose this most sacred landscape for their monument?
As a Comanche, I sometimes wonder myself.
Was the purpose of Mt. Rushmore to make a political point? To humiliate Indians? To remind them who is boss? To avenge Custer’s death? Perhaps to appropriate Indian sacred spaces, much as early Christians once built churches and cathedrals in the sacred groves of Odin or on the foundations of Roman temples?
Or did the white man build his monument there for no special reason at all, unmindful of Indian concerns one way or the other.
The latter seems most likely.
South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson was looking for ways to increase state revenue. He wanted a giant tourist attraction.
The Black Hills held charm for the white man, ever since gold was discovered there in 1874. They were made a national park. But Robinson wanted more. He’d heard of Borglum’s success carving the Confederate generals on Stone Mountain, Georgia. In 1924, he invited the sculptor to South Dakota.
From an Indian viewpoint, Mt. Rushmore does seem to add insult to injury. And many Indians, as I noted, would not be averse to seeing them go.
But we must accept it.
It is the warrior’s code to recognize the power of the conqueror. The white man had the power to take. We lacked the power to stop him.
Comanche warriors once understood such things.
If we couldn’t win in battle, we withdrew. We didn’t commit suicide. We lived to fight again.
I dare say, our ancestors would rather see us survive. That means accepting the verdict of the battlefield, and finding new foes – enemies more threatening than Mt. Rushmore and more worthy of our attention.