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The two faces of Mount Rushmore

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Mount Rushmore National Memorial


Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Many Winnipeg tourists head down to South Dakota to marvel at Mount Rushmore. The faces of four of the most beloved American presidents carved into the side of a mountain is quite a sight to see.

As a child, I recall the messages of freedom and independence that I read about in Dennis the Menace comic books and saw on the Wonderful World of Walt Disney TV shows that drove me to Mount Rushmore, and I wasn't disappointed. There is a certain highway you take where the glaring white visages of those four highly revered leaders blasts into view and it is breathtaking, just as it is from the viewing platform set up in front of this incredible monument.

But if you are seeing the same thing through the eyes of a Native American, you get quite a different perspective.

Mount Rushmore sits in the centre of the Black Hills -- a sacred site to the Sioux nation which was ceded to them by the Treaty of Laramie in 1868, never to be trod upon by the white man.

Until they found gold in them thar hills, that is.

Imagine gazing upon the sacred ground of your ancestors knowing it was stolen to make room for saloons and dance halls and gambling joints the gold rush created in towns such as Deadwood, S.D. Then imagine staring at the images of four of the most dedicated desecrators of your nation's culture and history.

Each of those four great American presidents whose image is carved into the sacred Black Hills has cut through the human rights of Native Americans like a knife.

George Washington? He ordered farms owned by Indians along the Mohawk River to be burned to the ground and gave bounties to any settler who could prove they killed an Indian by bringing in their "redskin."

Thomas Jefferson did the same and is partly famous for saying "Hunt them down life a wolf" to encourage Indian hunters.

Teddy Roosevelt is praised as a conservationist for setting 52 million acres of land aside for the creation of national parks. Where did the land come from? It was taken away from Indian reservations.

And Abraham Lincoln? Here is perhaps the cruelest cut of all.

Lincoln is widely recognized as the greatest American president of all time for freeing the slaves. But on the very day he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln signed an order for the biggest mass execution in American history; the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minn.

The history is unclear except for one fact; the death of the 38 Dakota men. Some say a cow wandered on to recognized Indian territory and some starving Indians butchered it to provide food for their families. A local rancher demanded justice, despite the fact the cow had no brand so 500 Indians gathered up 40 of their skinny cattle to offer to the rancher.

He refused that offer. He wanted justice.

So 500 Dakota pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing that cow and 500 Dakota were indicted.

To show "mercy," Lincoln reduced the number of men who were declared guilty to 38.

And 38 Dakota men were lined up in a row and hung on the gallows.

Others, who refer to this tragic event as the "Incident at Ulm," claim two Dakota warriors, who had been embarrassed by being shooed away with a broom by a farmer's wife after stealing some eggs and then took revenge by killing the farmer, his wife and the local postmaster, caused the "incident."

The indisputable fact is 38 Dakota men were sentenced to death on the same day Lincoln signed another piece of paper that freed the slaves. Of note locally, Lincoln was also was creating a Sioux presence here in Manitoba as Dakota fleeing the persecution ended up in the southwest part of this province.

I doubt many of us think of all this when we visit Mount Rushmore. The sculpture is magnificent, its sheer size, awesome.

But to a descendent of America's First Nations, who negotiated sacred treaties so the Black Hills would always remain a place of worship and prayer, it is not only sacrilegious to see this land overrun by gold miners and good-timers who desecrated all that your nation stands for, it can only be heartbreaking to see the images of your oppressors scarring the side of your sacred hills.

Mount Rushmore pays tribute to these men who stood for freedom, but only for some it seems.

It all depends on how you look at it.


Don Marks is editor of Grassroots News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 25, 2013 A11


Updated on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 7:12 AM CDT: Replaces photo

2:15 PM: Fixes word.

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