One thing becomes perfectly clear to anyone living in Western South Dakota: There is a mountain with the faces of four Presidents carved into it. They are referred to around here as the Founding Fathers.
Anyone who has studied history knows that the Founding Fathers were products of their times. They saw women as inferior, Blacks as slaves, and American Indians as disposable. African Americans got the right to vote in 1870 during the Reconstruction Era, women voted for the first time in 1921 and American Indians were the last to get that democratic right in 1924.
My father was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of Lakota heritage in 1894 and was 30 years old in 1924 when he was finally able to exercise a right then available to every other American except American Indians.
And so the four faces on Mount Rushmore, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were of a different era and saw America through the eyes of their times. It is still difficult for many Native Americans to look upon these white men as their founding fathers although they were often referred to by their ambassadors to the tribes as “The Great White Father.”
Here is what Thomas Jefferson, one face on Mount Rushmore, said about American Indians on August 28, 1807:
“If ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe we will never lay it down til that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi . . . in war they will kill some of us; but we will destroy all of them. Adjuring them, therefore, if they wish to remain on the land which covers the bones of their fathers, to keep the peace with a people who ask friendship without needing it, who wish to avoid war without fearing it. In war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.”
Another face, Theodore Roosevelt said in 1886, “I suppose I should be ashamed to say that I take the Western view of the Indian. I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
When African Americans were given the right to vote in 1870 the terror began. Thousands were lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. Their churches were burned to the ground and their women raped and humiliated. Whatever gains they made by voting were soon wiped out be the Jim Crow mindset that only wanted to put them back in their place; humble and subservient.
When I was 17 years old I joined the U. S. Navy and for the first time began to associate with people of other races. I did not know what the guys from Georgia, Mississippi or Louisiana meant when they said, “Sweating like a N_ _ _ _ r on election day” until I read up on the history of the South during and after Reconstruction. Only then could I ever imagine how fearful it must have been for a Black man to exercise his democratic right to vote in the South.
For Indians, Blacks, Hispanics and yes, even white women, America wasn’t all that great back then. I was never taught these things in school on the Indian reservation where I was raised. American school books were never designed to tell any truth that would make this country look bad. White men castrating and hanging black men for wanting to vote? No, the text books said by omission that this could never happen in America. White men raping and impregnating Black and Indian women? No, this could never happen in America or the text books would have told the story.
But today in the year 2021, many of us so-called minorities are proud to be Americans. We are proud because we know how it was back in those days and we have never tried to sugar-coat it like our school books and our politicians. But with so many brave men and women leading the way we fought to make America better and since the days of Jim Crow, we have come a very long way.
I am sure that even the men on Mount Rushmore, men who chose to denigrate and demean American Indians and lash their slaves with whips, would be shocked to see how far we have come as a people.
We came as far as we have because it was Indians, Blacks and Hispanics standing up and demanding the same freedoms as whites that propagated these changes for the better. Left in the hands of people such as those screaming “Make America Great Again” we would still be living in the days of slavery, injustice and hate that held us back as a Nation for much too long.
American Indian activist Russell Means called Mount Rushmore, “The Shrine of Hypocrisy” thereby diminishing its worldview as the ‘Shrine of Democracy.’ America was not so great back then and even today it backslides sometimes, but we keep moving in the right direction.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Tim is now the retired editor of Native Sun News Today and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)