On my office wall hangs a photograph of a Dakota medicine man jailed back
in the late 1800s by the Court of Indian Offenses. The Denver public
library digital photo collection where I found this image says the medicine
man's name was, "Frosted." The photograph shows the spiritual leader
wearing government-issued jeans, a denim shirt, lace up work boots, and a
The medicine man's feet are shackled, and a steel chain with a ball at the
end of it is slung over his left shoulder; the heavy steel ball is
prominently displayed at his waist level in the photograph. The photograph
well symbolizes how the white man's "democracy" and "rule of law" came to
the Great Sioux Nation. The ball and chain is a perfect metaphorical symbol
of the history of U.S. Indian law and policy.
I mention the shackled medicine man because of a photograph of President
George W. Bush I saw in Indian Country Today (Vol. 23, Iss. 43). The
photograph was taken when Bush visited the "Mount Rushmore National
Memorial" on August 15, 2002, where he gave a speech on "homeland
security." He is looking directly at the camera so that his face is shown
along with presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln.
According to news reports, this was an intentional effort by the White
House to shape public opinion about Bush.
Bush's insensitivity to the fact he was delivering his speech in the Sacred
Black Hills of the Great Sioux Nation, and their allied Native nations, was
made evident with the following remark: "I mean, after all, standing here
at Mount Rushmore reminds us that a lot of folks came before us to make
sure that we're free. A lot of pioneers came to this part of the world to
make sure that enterprise could flourish."
I'd like to know how Bush's statement about "folks" coming "here" to make
sure that "we're free" can be reconciled with the photograph of the
shackled Dakota medicine man, and the system of injustice that photograph
represents. "Know your audience" is the first rule of public speaking, and
it's clear that the only audience President Bush had in mind was a
I remember walking through the airport in Rapid City, S.D. in the early
1990s, and seeing a video developed by the Mount Rushmore Preservation Fund
that was narrated by former President Ronald Reagan (he made the video
voice-over after leaving office). Part of the video showed the German
people tearing down the Berlin Wall, and Reagan's voice-over referred to
Mount Rushmore as the "Shrine of Democracy," an amazing claim about a
monument carved from Sacred mountains illegally held by the United States.
The makers of the video clearly intended the granite presidential faces to
represent "justice" as contrasted with the injustice of the Berlin Wall.
But, from an informed Native perspective, both the Berlin Wall AND Mount
Rushmore are symbolic of oppression and injustice. George Washington was
responsible for destroying whole Indian towns in New York and the Ohio
River Valley following the Revolutionary War. The Haudenosaunee named
Washington "Town Destroyer." Lincoln was responsible for the largest mass
execution in American history, by ordering the hanging of Dakota Indians in
Minnesota. Jefferson, in addition to claiming U.S. sovereignty over
millions of acres of Indian lands via the Louisiana Purchase, advocated
using trading houses to run Indians into debt and then persuade Indian
people to part with huge areas of their lands in order to pay off the debt.
Teddy Roosevelt deserves a special mention because of his racist attitude
towards Indians and others. As Roosevelt wrote in his book "The Winning of
the West", "American and Indian, Boer and Zulu, Cossack and Tartar, New
Zealander and Maori, - in each case the victor, horrible though many of his
deeds are, has laid deep the foundations for the future greatness of a
Roosevelt went on to write, "it is of incalculable importance that America,
Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black,
and yellow aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant races
of the world." (Thanks to Steve Melendez for bringing this quote to my
In addition, Mount Rushmore perfectly represents the illegal occupation of
the Black Hills by the United States. The monument was built without the
permission of Great Sioux Nation and its allied nations, in violation of
treaties. According to the 1851 and 1868 treaties of Fort Laramie, the
Black Hills are situated within the homeland of the Great Sioux Nation, and
are not legally part of "the homeland" of the United States.
Thus, the presidential faces towering over President Bush during his speech
about homeland security perfectly symbolize a dark and disturbing legacy of
U.S. history. Those faces also represent the illegal occupation and
desecration of the Sacred Black Hills. For Bush to give a speech at the
site of such a notorious symbol of injustice, without any acknowledgment of
the U.S.'s horrible treatment of the Great Sioux Nation and other Plains
Indian nations, demonstrates an incredible lack of awareness on the part of
the White House of the larger historical context of contemporary Indian
Was it the U.S.'s effort to make the Plains Indian nations "free" by
massacring more than 300 women, children, and men at Wounded Knee and then
unceremoniously burying them in a mass grave in 1890, and afterwards giving
some 28 Congressional medals of honor to U.S. soldiers who participated in
the massacre? Was it part of the U.S.'s effort to make sure the Indian
nations were "free" by violating and refusing to abide by numerous
treaties, or by imprisoning medicine people and thereby attempting to
destroy Native spiritual traditions?
Is the President of the United States insensitive to the history of his
country's policies toward American Indians? Is he blind to the many crimes
his country has committed against Indian nations and peoples in the name of
"freedom" and "democracy," such as the millions of buffalo intentionally
killed as formal U.S. policy and the billions of dollars in gold stolen
from the Black Hills where he gave his speech at Mount Rushmore?
Looking back, perhaps it can be said that Mount Rushmore the so-called
Shrine of Democracy - symbolizes the United States' effort to "bring
democracy" to the Plains Indian nations by bullets and warfare in the same
way that the United States is now claiming to be bringing "democracy" to
the people of Iraq by warfare. The U.S. used deadly force in an avowed
effort to "pacify" the American Indian nations, and is now doing the same,
as General Kimmit has stated, to "pacify" the Iraqi people.
And, finally, how truly sad and ironic that some of the weaponry used in
the current war in Iraq have been named "Apache" and "Blackhawk" and that
U.S. military officials dubbed alleged mobile bio-weapons units in Iraq as
"Winnebagos of death." How dare they use the name of the Sauk Chief Black
Hawk, and the names of the Apache and Winnebago nations in such a manner.
Steven Newcomb is the Indigenous Law research coordinator at Kumeyaay
Community College (located on the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the
Kumeyaay Nation), co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law
Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.