First American Indian heads shrine to democracy
MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL, S.D. - Future visitors to the nation's
shrine to democracy will experience subtle differences in the programs over
the next few years and come away with a better understanding of history and
the four presidents whose faces are carved in the Black Hills' granite.
Many people visit the memorial and feel a sense of renewed patriotism and
freedom - and that won't be lost, said Gerard Baker, memorial
The changes may be controversial to some, welcomed by others, but things
will gradually change. The American Indian story will slowly become more
noticeable and the full story of the presidents will be told.
Baker is the first American Indian superintendent at Mount Rushmore. He
faced adversity in other assignments and expects to have some at Mount
Rushmore. He sees this assignment as a challenge, which is what drives him.
"There is so much to do here, so much to teach here. And what I want to
tell people is that there are many realms and many avenues of
interpretation. The one we are focused on is the four presidents, well,
that's fine, but that's only one avenue and only one focus," Baker said.
The faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore
Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are carved on the mountain. It represents the
first 150 years of the country's history. But Baker is quick to state that
people lived in the Black Hills before it was inhabited by non-Indians, and
those stories will be slowly integrated into the interpretive programs.
"We need to keep in mind the natural resources, the people who lived here
before, not only the tribes that are here now, but historically.
"I think the only way we can get people to understand what we are fighting
for as Indian people is getting them to understand who we were," Baker
Baker is Hidatsa-Mandan and grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in
North Dakota. He was raised within a traditional family, but admits there
is still a lot about the traditional way of life he is missing.
Four million people visit Mount Rushmore each year. To some it is a
pilgrimage, a patriotic duty, others stop by the memorial to see the
carving as art of a monumental undertaking. Soon all will return home with
a new or renewed knowledge of the American Indian and of the men on the
What may be different to the many American Indians who look upon the
memorial with disdain is that their ancestors will be mentioned at all.
Many Indians in the region do not visit the memorial, but that may change.
Baker said he wants to include Indians on the employment roster, to bring
the elders, young people and others in to tell the stories and interpret
the way of life.
"I grew up in two different worlds I think in a way. And that's what we are
trying to do here. We are going to do a lot more as far as the natural
resources and I want to do more with partnerships," he said.
At a recent gathering of National Park Rangers in the Black Hills, a panel
of Lakota was brought in to speak. Baker said Alex White Plume, vice
president elect of the Oglala Sioux Tribe said the faces on Mount Rushmore
should be covered over. That is a frequent comment among the tribes of
Baker said that wasn't going to happen, nor is he capable of giving the
land back to the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Shoshone or Kiowa that
once inhabited the region.
"Whether we know it, or like it or not, this is part of our history and I
think we can't shy away from that. We need to meet it head on, meaning that
we need to educate people. And so, being the first Indian here, I am very
proud of that," he said.
"Simply because we don't like the place because of what it represents is
only one small element. We should be there to educate people. We should
educate people not only on how we lived, but on more challenging aspects of
the treaties and treaty violations."
New trails would provide the visitor a close-up view of the 1,000-acre
park. Visitors will be treated to exotic plants and the only old growth
pine forest left in the Black Hills. And while on the trails, visitors will
be treated to American Indian stories and other experiences like hide
tanning, he said.
To support his claim that American Indian stories and history will work at
Mount Rushmore, Baker spoke of a group of young people from a Rapid City
school who came to the memorial, put up tipis and sat on stage in front of
1,000 visitors and told stories.
"I was so proud of them. It was amazing. And what I saw in the faces of the
visitors - they are hungry for that," he said.
Baker worked for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission on behalf of
the National Park Service. He said he got in trouble a lot. "Get it off
your chest and then we can talk business," he said.
Baker spoke of this new plan for the memorial with a passion and
exhilarating pace reserved for much younger people that can disarm anyone
and turn a disbeliever into a strong advocate for his vision. It is not
Baker is the superintendent that overcame some harsh criticism over the
development of the American Indian memorial at the Little Big Horn site. He
was criticized strongly by Custer buffs and also by many American Indian
"I'm going to try to bring in groups with partnerships. There are all kinds
of ways to express yourself and what I am looking for here is the most
"When the western expansion started it was manifest destiny. Well, it was a
land rush ... there is no soft way to put that, it was a land grab and so
if you portray your accurate history and keep your emotions down as an
interpreter and if the groups gets really mad or sad, that's up to them."
Baker's goal is to create a cultural exchange among the millions of
visitors that visit the memorial. "If we could educate one of them that
would be great ... and understand why we are upset with the treaties, why
the tribes want the sacred land back."
SUPPORT FROM THE TOP
Baker said he is backed by the National Park Service.
"I'm starting to see a real positive change in the government. A lot of
people won't see it, but the government is, I think anyway, is starting to
change one step at a time. Twenty-seven years ago when I came to the park
service we didn't do hardly anything to understand tribes and there were a
lot of bad feelings.
"Now people are really trying. We have a ways to go obviously, but the
acceptance is there, the support is there," he said.
He also puts a challenge to the tribes to give the government agencies a
"From a human standpoint changes are extremely slow and because of our laws
and policies it looks like we are not doing anything, but we can ease up on
our policies and we can do it differently."
Baker is first and foremost the superintendent at Mount Rushmore, but he
said he was hopeful that he could help tribes develop and create a tourism
economy. Tourism in South Dakota is the number two industry.
"If the tribes can use us to do that, I would love to have them use us so
they could set their own tours and own programs in their own arenas."
Baker never completes a thought without mentioning education - of the
tribes, non-Indians and all visitors. He said he visits Wounded Knee, some
90 minutes from Mount Rushmore, on a regular basis and he sees opportunity
to not just capture tourist dollars, but to also educate the public.
"I'm excited about this place, excited about the opportunity to learn and
teach and get people to sit down at one table and deal with us as human
beings. There are things I can do to make it better I believe. Another year
and we will see what happens."
Baker is one of three American Indian superintendents at national parks,
his son Page Baker is superintendent at Casa Grande Monument and Darrel
Cook, Lakota, is superintendent at the Little Big Horn Battlefield.
He said he hopes that someday all the parks will be managed by American
Indians; after all the land was once inhabited by their ancestors and many
of the parks contain sacred sites.