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‘Tunkasila Sakpe’: Mt. Rushmore

Smudging with sage, a demonstrator stands before a no-trespass banner. Photo Courtesy: Chynna Locket


KEYSTONE – The Shrine of Democracy, as Mt. Rushmore Memorial is often called, was named after New York City attorney Charles E. Rushmore, who was verifying property titles in 1884 when he asked local guide Bill Challis the name of this mountain.

Challis replied, “Never had a name but from now on we’ll call it Rushmore,” according to the non-profit publication National Parks Traveler.

However, the Native people from whom the location was usurped by treaty violation called it Tuŋkášila Šákpe, the name in the Lakota language for The Six Grandfathers. “The granite bluff that towered above the Hills remained carved only by the wind and the rain until 1927 when Gutzon Borglum began his assault on the mountain.”

So goes the oral history, as captured by the Chamberlain-based non-profit Native Hope, which advocates to reverse “injustice done to Native Americans.” One of its main tool’s is storytelling – to dismantle barriers and promote healing, it says.

Lakota holy man Nicholas Black Elk named The Six Grandfathers after a vision “of the six sacred directions: west, east, north, south, above, and below. The directions were said to represent kindness and love, full of years and wisdom, like human grandfathers,” Native Hope documents.

Borglum, fresh from sculpting on the massive Confederate Memorial bas relief at Stone Mountain in Georgia, answered the call of Black Hills tourism industry promoters to create a carving on this granite outcrop “to honor the West’s greatest heroes, both Native Americans and pioneers.”

However, Borglum had his own kind of vision and convinced backers to let him chisel and blast out the busts of U.S. President George Washington alongside White House successors Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

At U.S. President Donald Trump’s July 3 reelection campaign-stop here, he received applause for saying, “Today, we pay tribute to the exceptional lives and extraordinary legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.”

He took advantage of the backdrop to fan the flames of national controversy over racist symbols in public art, part of unrest ignited a month earlier with the death of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd under the knee of a white officer, in an incident proclaimed murder by the police chief.

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children,” Trump said. “Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”

He received more applause for saying, “I am here as your President to proclaim before the country and before the world: This monument will never be desecrated, these heroes will never be defaced, their legacy will never, ever be destroyed, their achievements will never be forgotten, and Mt. Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.”

Meanwhile, what turned out to be a total of 20 Native Americans and accomplices who organized a civil disobedience action against the “trespass” on Lakota treaty lands were hauled off to jail.

Less than 80 years since the completion of the mountain carving, more than one participant in the civil disobedience demonstration triggered by the campaign stop here recast it as the Shrine of Hypocrisy.

In the leadup to the fateful day, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chair Harold Frazier objected strenuously to the campaign stop at the monument, saying, “Nothing stands as a greater reminder to the Great Sioux Nation of a country that cannot keep a promise or treaty then the faces carved into our sacred land on what the United States calls Mount Rushmore.”

He criticized a waiver of the fireworks ban allowing the campaign event to have a show in the Black Hills during fire danger season. “We are now being forced to witness the lashing of our land with pomp, arrogance and fire hoping our sacred lands will survive,” he said.

“Visitors look upon the faces of those presidents and extoll the virtues that they believe make America the country it is today. Lakota see the faces of the men who lied, cheated and murdered innocent people whose only crime was living on the land they wanted to steal,” he insisted.

Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. Roosevelt coined the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Lincoln, on the day after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ordered the largest mass execution in U.S. history, with the public hanging of 38 Dakota sons.

Borglum was “once high in the inner circle of the Klan,” writes author Charles Rambow in the South Dakota State Historical Society’s 1973 publication The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s: A Concentration on the Black Hills.

Days before Trump’s campaign stop, both Frazier and Oglala Sioux Tribal President Julian Bear Runner had publicly advocated for “removal” of the landmark.

After 19th Century gold discovery attracted thousands of squatters to the Black Hills and the U.S. government broke its constitutional mandate to uphold the treaty protecting the area for the Oceti Sakowin, the effigies on a sacred mountain were seen as a desperate thrust of a failed conquest.

“For the Lakota, this was just one more violating act of colonization,” Native Hope relates.

“The Lakota have opposed Mount Rushmore since the very beginning,” said Nick Tilsen, leader of the civil disobedience action at the Trump stopover.

Tilsen’s national non-profit NDN Collective called for “closure of Mount Rushmore” but was quick and determined to stress that the cause is not as superficial as a symbolic sculpture.

Rather it is “for the Black Hills to be returned to the Lakota” in redress for more than a century of illegal use of the most sacred tract of ancestral territory.

Demonstrators accused the would-be second-term chief executive with turning a blind eye to the United Nations universal principle of indigenous peoples’ right to free prior and informed consent because he chose this location without asking tribal authorization.

While their main demand was to honor rights under the Constitution, which holds treaties as the highest law of the land, they also stood up for human and civil rights, bearing signs and slogans including Black Lives Matter and drawing attention to the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.


(Contact Talli Nauman at

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