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‘Your heroes are not necessarily our heroes’

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up for Them)


Many years ago Leta Rector, a lady of the Cherokee Nation, came to work for me at Indian Country Today when it was based in Rapid City.

Rector was from Oklahoma and had never been up in the Black Hills to visit Mount Rushmore. One day I was headed up there for some business and Rector asked if she could tag along. I said sure.

It had been sort of foggy and drizzly earlier that morning, but had cleared up by the time we got there. Rector walked up to the viewing area nearest the carved heads on the mountain and from there the faces looked like they had tears running down their eyes. Obviously moved she said, “They’re crying.”

And even if they had not been crying I believe that Rector, like so many Native Americans before her, would not have gotten the same surge of patriotism that a tourist from Connecticut would have got. Most Native Americans know the connection to history we see in those faces. First of all let’s look at the irony of where those faces are carved. The He Sapa or Black Hills have for centuries been a sacred gathering place for the tribes of the Great Plains.

There is a mythical history that has for centuries been a very part of the spiritual connection to the Black Hills by the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation. To carve the faces of four men who have been a part of their destruction in those Hills has long been a thorn in the side of the Plains Indians.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt are according to American history, the Founding Fathers. But remember this; they are not the Founding Fathers to the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people. We had Tasunka Witko, Tatanka Iyotanka, and Mahpiya Luta as our Founding Fathers (Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud).

Although Leta Rector had never seen the faces on Mount Rushmore, when she did she knew it immediately in her heart that there was something very wrong on that mountain.

We looked up some of the words spoken by the four faces on Mount Rushmore about American Indians. Here is what they said:


“Indians and wolves are both beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.”

George Washington

“If ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi… in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy them all.”

Thomas Jefferson

“Ordered that of the Indians and Half-breeds sentenced to be hanged by the military commission, composed of Colonel Crooks, Lt. Colonel Marshall, Captain Grant, Captain Bailey, and Lieutenant Olin, and lately sitting in Minnesota, you cause to be executed on Friday the nineteenth day of December, instant, the following names, to wit…” Text from President Lincoln to General Sibley ordering the execution of American Indians in Minnesota that initiated the largest mass hanging in American history.

Abraham Lincoln

“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

Theodore Roosevelt

The wasicu (whites) can interpret this as a sign of the times, but they are looking at it through their eyes and not through the eyes of the American Indians. One year the great activist Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian, and I looked at the Stature of Liberty from a ferry cruising past it on the way to Long Island. We did not see that statue as most Americans would see it. Instead we saw it through the eye of the indigenous people. We actually saw it with tears in our eyes just like Leta Rector saw the faces on Mount Rushmore that day many years ago.

It is said that history is written by the victors. In other words it is HIS-STORY. There is not a Native American alive today who feels that we have ever been defeated. The weapons used to bring us down as a people were weapons of presidents, Congress, and senators. They wrote the laws that pillaged our lands and natural resources without any input from us.

I saw a painting of a young Indian woman wrapped in an American flag years ago and the title of the painting was, “Your heroes are not necessarily our heroes.”

When you see a statue or sign that is supposed to evoke a feeling of American patriotism in your heart, think of how an indigenous person might look at the same thing. In other words, try to see America through the eyes of the Native American.

(Contact Tim Giago at Tim was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 1997)

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