Report seeks to recognize meaning of Mount Rushmore for Native people

AMES, Iowa – Mount Rushmore is a symbol of freedom for many Americans, but the monument, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, has a more complicated meaning for Native people.

Christina Gish Hill, an associate professor of anthropology at Iowa State University, is part of a research team working with the National Park Service to document the significance of the Black Hills for Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho people in relationship to Mount Rushmore. Gish Hill focused specifically on the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations and spent several weeks at the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana and the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation, Oklahoma, conducting interviews for the project.

Throughout the interviews, Gish Hill repeatedly heard from people who would like to see a display in the Mount Rushmore visitor’s center that illustrates the history and ongoing connection the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations have to the Black Hills. Gish Hill says many visitors may not understand the historical and religious relationship Native people have to the landscape today.

“The Black Hills are a profoundly important place, and it is difficult to put into words how meaningful the region is for Cheyenne and Arapaho people,” Gish Hill said. “For many Native people of the northern and southern Plains, the Black Hills are sacred because events in their religious narratives and founding histories happened there.”

Native people visit the Black Hills for many reasons, but often to pray and fast. Similar to any religious or spiritual place, they want it to be a place for quiet reflection, Gish Hill said. However, tourism and development have disrupted how Cheyenne and Arapaho people connect with the landscape. 

A more critical view

Several Native people expressed appreciation for the opportunity to share their opinions and recognized the challenge in presenting different perspectives, but they remained critical of what the monument represents, Gish Hill said. Many suggested the Park Service detail the complex relationships between Native people and each president.

“People raised concerns that Mount Rushmore portrays U.S. presidents in an unproblematic way. Some noted that glorifying them without recognizing the challenges posed by U.S. history is a slap in the face,” she said. “That is really the painful piece for Native people – their painful history with the U.S. government, the theft of the Black Hills and then having this monument that is not only destructive to such a sacred place, but also glorifies the U.S. in a very uncritical manner.”

What happens next?  

The research team submitted its report to the Park Service on July 1. Gish Hill expects some revisions before the final document is presented. She hopes it will eventually be published online, as was a similar report for Wind Cave National Park, to which she contributed.

“This is really a first step. The document is rich and provides lots of insight from several different perspectives including Lakota people,” Gish Hill said. “My hope is it will help people be more connected to a place that is profound for them, and that it will begin a difficult conversation about what Mount Rushmore should display as a representation of the United States.”

The final report includes chapters on other issues such as tourism in the Black Hills, the relationship between the Lakota people and Mount Rushmore and U.S. treaties. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, University of Nebraska and University of Colorado-Boulder all contributed to the report.

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