MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL, S.D. (AP) – There aren’t any signs pointing Mount Rushmore visitors to the newest exhibit. Superintendent Gerard Baker prefers that visitors explore the national memorial’s grounds and discover the American Indian heritage village on their own.
He isn’t going to tell them what to think of it, either, not like with the memorial’s museum that extols the greatness of the presidents enshrined on the mountain and celebrates the feat of engineering that carved them into granite.
“How do you interpret sacred geography? We don’t have that much time,” Baker said, referring to the tourists who visit Rushmore, but then, tapping their watches, eagerly move on to Crazy Horse or Dairy Queen. “I want people to leave this park with more questions than answers.”
Baker, who grew up on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, is a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes.
Heritage village, which opened this summer, is a cluster of three tipis off the Presidential Trail walkway, where five days a week, American Indians work as cultural interpreters, practicing traditional arts and answering visitors’ questions about their history and community. Baker’s efforts to use Mount Rushmore to raise cultural awareness this summer also have included a performance from the Faith Temple gospel choir, a Germans from Russia dance and heritage display, a Lakota hoop dancer and a Sons of Norway crafts and history demonstration.
Baker certainly has some local people raising questions about what he is doing with the Mount Rushmore site. No one questions whether an education in Native history is important for Black Hills visitors. But they dispute that it belongs at Rushmore.
Air Force veteran and Hermosa resident Lance Bultena said the new Native history display doesn’t fit in with the “theme” of Mount Rushmore, which he sees as a celebration of the nation’s constitutional ideals and the great presidents who established, preserved and expanded the union.
“I think it’s more of an appeasement to make them feel like they’re a part of it, which I can understand everybody wants to be a part of it,” he said. “I really don’t see that as a necessity or enhancing Mount Rushmore.”
Rapid City’s Angie Schilling saw the heritage village this year and didn’t think it necessarily belonged. She thought, “Ah, well, we’ve got to add something Indian into every part of what we do.”
But it was Baker’s apparent feelings about Mount Rushmore that really upset Schilling.
When Baker was quoted as saying his favorite part of Mount Rushmore was “the back” because “that’s the way it was” before the carving, she got mad.
“It’s just disrespectful,” she said. “That structure, if you will, it portrays our pride in our heritage, and our founding fathers, and everything that we hold as American citizens, and for him to say, my favorite part is the back,” she said, makes her wonder, “Are you proud to be an American? Or are you ashamed to be an American, when your Native people were held under subjugation?”
Comments like these bother Baker, who like many American Indians has a complicated and multifaceted relationship with the monument and the government, which in this case is his employer. On one hand, it’s one of the two places his family said he should never work when he started his career with the park service, the place Native activists such as Russell Means call the “Shrine of Hypocrisy” (a spin on the Memorial’s “Shrine of Democracy” title) to describe the carving of American presidents into the sacred hills taken from Natives in treaty backpedaling.
On the other hand, Baker joins patriotic Americans when he speaks about “the four great presidents that gave us this land,” referring to the nation as a whole. Baker said he is always trying to learn more about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, reading books about their lives and studying their thought and philosophies.
“This should be a place for people to come and reflect on who you are as an American,” he said.
When he hears the criticism, he thinks: “Hey, it’s America. That’s the joy of the freedoms here,” that people can speak their minds. He invites anyone who wonders about or disagrees with his plans for Rushmore to come visit him here and talk it over with him personally.
This isn’t the first National Parks Service position in which Baker has introduced an American Indian perspective. Baker generated controversy while working at the former Custer National Battlefield – the other place his family told him never to work.
He became superintendent shortly after Congress changed the name to the Little Bighorn National Battlefield and ordered the construction of an “Indian Memorial,” both unpopular among Custer buffs.
Baker moved to include Native perspective through events like a Wipe Away the Tears healing ceremony and a controversial “Attack at Dawn” ceremony during the 120th anniversary of the battle, in which Native riders counted coup on a stone marker of a mass grave for Cavalry soldiers.
“I’ve always tried wherever I’m at to bring in the concept of the American Indian,” he said.
Later, he included a Native perspective as he oversaw the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, incorporating information about the plains life of people like his Mandan and Hidatsa ancestors into the interpretation, and arguing that Jefferson’s team didn’t “discover” anything that other people didn’t already know about.
Baker said he has been fortunate to have had the support of National Park Service officials, who are trying around the country to expand the number of stories and viewpoints shared at parks and monuments.
Patty Rooney, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service’s Midwest region, thinks the heritage village “very much” belongs at Rushmore. She compared it to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, which encompasses a variety of sights.
The most well-known, like Mount Rushmore’s presidential faces, is a conceptual feat of art and engineering - Eero Saarinen’s stainless steel Gateway Arch. But there’s also the Museum of Westward Expansion, which tells the story of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery and features artifacts from American Indians and Midwestern pioneers.
Finally, there’s the Old Courthouse, where the slave Dred Scott famously sued for his freedom.
Mount Rushmore and the Gateway Arch are both works of art that are open to interpretation from visitors, Rooney said.
“We look at it from the interpretive standpoint as there���s not just one story,” she said.
National Park Service superintendents have a lot of latitude in how they develop their parks, Rooney said.
As for Baker, “That’s his area of experience and expertise, and he’s chosen to emphasize that, and that’s wonderful. That doesn’t mean that anything else suffers,” she said. “Having an American Indian as the superintendent has helped bring that out. I’m not so sure had an Anglo made the same effort would it have been as successful and as accepted. I think Gerard is a good bridge in that sense.”
If he is turning some people off, Baker said, he is turning others on to Rushmore’s message.
Elders from tribes in South Dakota and nearby states never felt they were welcome at Rushmore, he said. When he first took the job at Rushmore, Baker visited the elders, explained his philosophy about the monument, and invited them to be part of it. This February, he hosted tribal elders at the site, where they told him of the need for more interpretive programs to share their story.
“What I’m trying to show here is this place is for everybody,” Baker said.
He agrees the site needs a more balanced story. The timeline of American history in the Borglum museum reads like an old fifth-grade history textbook, highlighting the British colonies, the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, Lexington and Concord, Trenton and Princeton. No mention is made of Native life before the Lewis and Clark expedition, and no Natives are mentioned by name except Sacagawea, as the timeline traces the Trail of Tears, the Fort Laramie Treaty and reservation settlement. The history will be expanded through the monument’s long-range planning process, Baker said.
Not everyone is going to warm to Rushmore just because Baker puts up some tipis.
Activist Charmaine White Face still calls the mountain carving “a horrible, terrible desecration” but said, “I think what Gerard Baker has been doing is good.”
Baker makes it clear the point is not to focus on the ways the government has wronged Natives, as some fear, but to interpret the history of Native life and faith in the Hills for visitors who are very much interested in the story.
“It’s our job here, I believe, not to press the negative,” he said. In this, he is walking a moderate line between what those with extreme views on either side would prefer he do.
It’s clear from spending time with Baker at the memorial that visitors hunger for information about Native Americans, whether it’s from the heritage village or from Baker himself. When he walks the grounds, family after family stops him to ask if they can take their photo with the tall man with the long braids.
Jack Libin, 5, of Salt Lake City was wide-eyed when Baker stopped him, kneeled and asked about the big, gold Mount Rushmore necklace he wore, which made the young boy look like a patriotic rap star. Libin was able to name the presidents for Baker, with an assist from his mother, Jeni.
Jack’s father, Joe Libin, said the family was there on vacation and thought the heritage village was “cool.”
“The Black Hills history was all American Indian, so it absolutely has to be represented,” Libin said before the family headed to Crazy Horse Memorial to learn more.
Baker invites South Dakotans who are critical of the changes to visit and reconsider.
“I invite them to take their blinders off and look at the full history of this place.”
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