Summer 2002

The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa, in the Year 502,002 C.E.

Accompanied by a poster insert by the artist

Matthew Buckingham

Matthew Buckingham’s image of what the Six Grandfathers, known also as Mount Rushmore, might look like in the distant future was included in the issue as a poster. It can be purchased here.

The image above shows what geologists believe the Six Grandfathers will look like in the year 502,002 CE. Located just south of the geographic center of the continental United States in the Paha Sapa, or Black Hills, this mountain has also been called Slaughterhouse Peak, Cougar Mountain, and is now referred to as Mount Rushmore. Much older than the Alps, Himalayas, and Pyrenees, the Paha Sapa and Six Grandfathers were formed when subterranean pressure raised the earth’s cru­st into a huge elliptical dome sixty-five million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period. Today the six-thousand-square-mile granite outcropping is visited by two million tourists each year, who go there to gaze up at the massive portraits of four American presidents—Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln—carved into the Six Grandfathers between 1926 and 1941 by the sculptor Gutzon Borglum.

The first descendants of Europe to enter the Paha Sapa were ponies—progeny of the sixteen horses Hernán Cortéz brought with him from Spain to the “New World.” The Taos Indians introduced them to the Kiowa in the 1600s. In the eighteenth century, European westward expansion displaced the Sioux from their native woodlands, who then, in turn, displaced the Kiowa, acquiring their horses as well as the Paha Sapa.

Napoleon Bonaparte never saw the Louisiana Territory that France had claimed under the “doctrine of discovery.” In 1803 US president Thomas Jefferson was prepared to pay the French $10 million for New Orleans and the Florida peninsula, but sensed that financially troubled France might be willing to bargain. In the end Jefferson bought all the land from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf Coast to Canada for fifteen million dollars—about three cents an acre—doubling the size of the US. One year later, while exploring and mapping the vast territory, Lewis and Clark began bestowing symbolic citizenship on Native Americans by wrapping newborn Indians in the American flag.

Deemed “unfit for civilization,” new maps labeled the Paha Sapa the “Great American Desert,” and the US Government designated it as a “Permanent Indian Country.” Americans like the Astor family in New York quickly replaced French and English fur trading companies doing business with indigenous people across the Louisiana Territory, earning up to half a million dollars annually. In the summer of 1845, US Army Colonel S. W. Kearny arrived at the Laramie fork of the Platte River and gave the Sioux a flag made up of a series of diagonal lines, nine stars and two hands clasped in friendship on a blue background. This was, he told the Indians, the flag of the Sioux Nation.

To protect trespassing whites and ease tensions between warring Native nations, the United States negotiated the first Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851. Native signatories agreed to live on designated lands, including the Paha Sapa, which the treaty promised to them forever. When the South seceded from the Union, two pieces of legislation previously blocked by southern Congressmen were passed: the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railroad Act. The first granted 160 acres of land to any European-American who claimed it. The second transferred 170 million acres of public land to the transcontinental railroad companies, who resold it to finance construction of their rail lines and insure development of towns along their routes. They also used their influence over eastern newspapers to gain public support for westward expansion and the “inevitable” Indian wars to follow. General Phil Sheridan, who commanded the US Army in the west, enthusiastically observed that the new railroads would “bring the Indian problem to a final solution.”

When gold was discovered in the Colorado and Montana territories in 1864, white prospectors invading indigenous hunting grounds triggered a series of bloody conflicts. Quelling native revolts was financially prohibitive. The monthly expense for maintaining the US Army on the Plains was two million dollars—$150,000 for each Native American killed. Humanitarians back east, who had not faced conflict with Native Americans for nearly a hundred years, were outraged by the bloodshed in the west. The Interior Department, charged with managing Indian affairs, reasoned that it would be easier, less expensive, and more palatable to exterminate a culture than a people. The department strategized the reservation system and offered the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which again guaranteed Sioux land rights to the Black Hills forever. The treaty yielded to all Sioux demands, marking the only time in its history that the United States negotiated peace on enemy terms.

But the economic depression following the Civil War revived American fantasies of finding gold in the west. Under the pretense of surveying the Black Hills for the US Army, George Armstrong Custer violated the Treaty of 1868 when he led an expedition into the Paha Sapa in search of gold. Custer, who graduated last in his class at West Point but made general at age twenty-three, brought newspaper reporters, a photographer, a botanist, a geologist, and several professional miners with him. Halfway through the trip Custer dispatched a scout with a telegram declaring he had “found gold in the roots of the grass.” Later, Custer’s geologist denied any knowledge of gold in the Paha Sapa.

President Ulysses Grant ordered the Sioux borders closed to prospecting and sent a second expedition to the Black Hills to assess its real estate value. Many soldiers guarding the Hills deserted to become prospectors themselves. Some officers urged miners to stake claims on their land before throwing them out. After receiving cautious confirmation of gold in the Black Hills from the second expedition, Grant secretly ordered the army not to stop prospectors from entering the Black Hills. Bounty hunters began collecting as much as three hundred dollars per Native American killed.

Nervous for the safety of whites settling in the Black Hills, Grant and the Interior Department invented a provocation to justify declaring war on the Indians. In December 1875, the Government ordered the Sioux tribes that had camped for the winter in the Yellowstone and Powder River Valleys to abandon their hunting grounds and return to the reservation—an impossible order to carry out in the dead of winter. In the spring the US Army assembled to attack the violators, but the Sioux and Cheyenne were preparing as well. During the annual Sun Dance, Sitting Bull had a vision of US soldiers riding their horses upside down into his camp and falling to the ground, dead. In the vision the corpses had no ears “because white men never listen.”

Nine days before the nation’s hundredth birthday, Crazy Horse and others defeated Custer and the 7th Cavalry in the battle of Little Big Horn. The only survivors were a few army horses. One, named Comanche, who was too injured to be of use to tribal warriors, was nursed back to health by the US military and later exhibited and mythologized as the “sole survivor of Little Big Horn.” The resounding defeat and its timing fueled US anti-Indian sentiment even more. Grant offered the Sioux the option of selling the Black Hills or starving to death. One tenth of the Sioux population signed the 1877 agreement to sell. Congress approved the act even though signatures from three-fourths of the tribe were required for legal ratification. The Sioux were moved out of the Black Hills and off of their hunting grounds onto permanent reservations. Over the next twelve years these Sioux lands were divided and radically reduced. The long period of armed conflict ended in 1890 with the massacre of more than 146 Sioux at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Around 1900, a mining interest in New York City hired a young lawyer named Charles Rushmore to travel to the Black Hills to check land titles on its mines. One day, noticing a mountain peak in the distance, the lawyer asked if it had a name. His guide jokingly replied that it was called Mount Rushmore. The name stuck.

In 1923, the poet and South Dakota state historian, Doane Robinson, came up with an idea to preserve what he perceived to be the waning spirit of the American West. His idea, which he hoped would also increase tourist revenues, was to commission a sculptor to transform a few of “The Needles”—tall, narrow, granite rock formations in the Black Hills—into memorials of major figures from the grand narrative of the American West. Enormous head-to-toe portraits of Custer, Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and others would stand along a new highway designed to lure automobile tourists away from Yellowstone National Park. To do the work, Robinson invited one of America’s most famous sculptors at the time, Gutzon Borglum, the son of Danish Mormon immigrants who, a generation before, had made the ten-week trek along the Mormon trail through indigenous lands to Brigham Young’s “New Jerusalem,” Salt Lake City.

When Doane Robinson contacted Borglum, he was embroiled in a struggle for control over a similar carving in Stone Mountain, Georgia, a massive bas-relief monument to the Confederacy depicting its heroes Lee and Jackson marching across the mountain followed by their troops. Shortly after Stone Mountain was initiated, it was used as the site of a ceremony to revive the Ku Klux Klan in the twentieth century. Many of the people funding and supervising the Stone Mountain carving were members of the reborn Klan. Borglum himself joined the Klan in order to exert more influence over the monument, ultimately becoming involved at the highest levels of the organization, working behind the scenes in an attempt to elect a KKK member to the White House. Internecine fighting among Klan leadership over presidential politics and the funds for Stone Mountain resulted in Borglum’s firing.

In South Dakota, Borglum found “The Needles” unsuitable for carving, and chose instead the Six Grandfathers. Naturalists attacked the plan, saying it desecrated the Black Hills’ “natural beauty.” Doane Robinson defended it, stating “God only makes a Michelangelo or a Gutzon Borglum once in a thousand years.”

Borglum convinced Robinson that the project should be less regional and more nationally patriotic. He proposed to make a “Shrine of Democracy” that would include two to four presidential portraits, an entablature inscribed with a terse five-hundred-word history of the United States, and a hall of records where the founding documents of American democracy would be preserved and sacralized. When plans for the monument were made public, newspaper reporters began phoning Charles Rushmore in New York to find out what he had done to deserve having a mountain named after him. Embarrassed about the truth, he made a five-thousand-dollar donation to the monument.

As at Stone Mountain, money and politics slowed Borglum’s progress. When President Coolidge announced he would spend the summer of 1927 in South Dakota, the Mount Rushmore Committee leapt at the chance to garner his support. Hanging Squaw Creek was renamed Grace Coolidge Creek after the president’s wife. It was also stocked with trout confined by hidden nets. After finding the fishing a little too easy, Coolidge gave it up for the summer, saying that he was either “the best fisherman alive or the luckiest.”

Borglum worked on Mount Rushmore for fifteen years. One million dollars was spent, 84 percent of which was federal money. Despite telling Congress that the monument would have no meaning without the Hall of Records, funds were never appropriated to finish it. Borglum also intended to carve the presidential portraits to the waist, but when he died in 1941 only the faces were near completion. The US government restricted further spending on the memorial, allocating just enough money for Borglum’s son, Lincoln, to finish the hair and faces on the four heads. Even then the likenesses were not actually “complete.” Gutzon Borglum’s design intentionally left three extra inches of granite on the surface of the sculpture so that nature, in the form of wind and water erosion, would finish carving Mount Rushmore for him over the next twenty thousand years.

After World War II the Paha Sapa continued to attract symbolic readings and was proposed as a home for the United Nations. Promoters claimed the area was equidistant from important national capitals and that the sparsely populated landscape might inspire moral and spiritual reflection the way similar landscapes had fostered Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. Another massive sculpture to honor Churchill, Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt was even proposed.

Although the UN made its home elsewhere, Doane Robinson’s vision of tourism in the Black Hills was fulfilled. By the end of the century, white-owned businesses in the area were earning one hundred million dollars annually. Sixty miles east of Mount Rushmore, the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Sioux remains one of the poorest regions in the US, with an average annual unemployment rate of 80 percent. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower’s Urban Relocation Policy attempted to terminate rural reservation life altogether, forcing Native Americans into cities. An unintended result of this program was that many Natives of the next generation, disillusioned with city life, returned to the reservations where elders and native tradition inspired new forms of political resistance modeled on black activist and feminist movements. In 1970 and again in 1971, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) reoccupied Mount Rushmore for a total of thirteen weeks, demanding that the US honor the treaty of 1868 and also return lands seized from Pine Ridge during World War II.

In 1980, after decades of filing claims, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sioux Nation, acknowledging that the Black Hills had been appropriated illegally by the US government when it broke the treaty of 1868. But the court also declared that the passage of time made the return of Sioux lands impossible and ordered a $120 million reparation payment. The Sioux refused the money and in 1982 the Committee for the Return of the Black Hills was formed, consisting of one representative from each Sioux tribe. The committee got the support of New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley (Dem.), who sponsored their legislation in Congress. Representatives of South Dakota led the fight against the bill to return 1.3 of the 7.5 million acres of land the Supreme Court said belonged to the Sioux. The bill was defeated in 1987. In 1990 further legislation over the Black Hills claim was defeated on Capitol Hill. South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle (Dem.) established the Open Hills Association in his home state, an organization dedicated to fighting future attempts by the Sioux to regain the Paha Sapa. Daschle also began using Mount Rushmore to raise campaign money, charging “guests” $5,000 dollars each for a helicopter ride to the top of Washington’s head—an area designated off-limits by the National Park Service.

The 1980 reparation payment, being held in trust by the US government, has now grown, with interest, to about $570 million. Eighty percent of Sioux tribal members recently polled affirmed that the Black Hills are not for sale and said they support drafting another bill to ask Congress for the return of the Paha Sapa to the Sioux Nation.

Lincoln Borglum, Mount Rushmore (Las Vegas: KC Publications, 1977).
James Calhoun, With Custer in ‘74: James Calhoun’s Diary of the Black Hills Expedition, ed. Lawrence A. Frost (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1979).
Ward Churchill, From a Native Son: Selected Essays in Indigenism, 1985-1995 (Boston: South End Press, 1996).
Robert J. Dean, Living Granite: the Story of Borglum and the Mount Rushmore Memorial (New York: Viking Press, 1949).
Gilbert Fite, Mount Rushmore (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952).
Tim Giago, “Crazy Horse Mountain and Mt. Rushmore Disgrace Black Hills, Indian Country Today, 18 May 1998, vol. 17, no. 46.
Matthew Glass, “‘Alexanders All’: Symbols of Conquest and Resistance at Mount Rushmore,” in David Chidester and Edward T. Linenthal, eds., American Sacred Space (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).
Jesse Larner, “Icon of Patriotism: Human Beings Are Lost With­out a Collective Memory,” Indian Country Today, 11 May 1998, vol. 17, no. 45.
Edward Lazarus, Black Hills/White Justice: The Sioux Nation Versus the United States, 1775 to the Present (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).
Avis Little Eagle, “Don’t Sell the Black Hills,” Indian Country Today, 29 June 1998, vol. 17, no. 52.
Avis Little Eagle, “Black Hills Land Claim Reaches Half a Billion: Mum’s the Word on Sioux Claim,” Indian Country Today, 4 May 1998, vol. 17, no. 44.
Howard Shaff & Audrey Karl Shaff, Six Wars at a Time: The Life and Times of Gutzon Borglum, Sculptor of Mount Rushmore (Freeman, South Dakota: Pine Hill Press, 1985).
Judith Nies, Native American History (New York: Ballantine, 1996).
Rex Alan Smith, The Carving of Mount Rushmore (New York: Abbeville Press, 1985).
June Zeitner, Borglum’s Unfinished Dream (Aberdeen: North Plains Press, 1976).

Matthew Buckingham is an artist based in New York. He is represented by Murray Guy Gallery, New York, and Galleri Tommy Lund, Copenhagen.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.