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The value of controversy and education

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BOULDER, Colo. – America’s national parks, venerated family recreation areas since the time of Teddy Roosevelt, may become important reflections of the country’s Native history, aided by a National Park Service superintendent who believes “controversy is always fun and education is always needed.”

Gerard Baker, highest-ranking American Indian in the Park Service and now superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, said several other historical “battle” sites may join Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site as officially designated massacre locations.

Even places with names like Harney Peak in South Dakota may be renamed to avoid memorializing people like Gen. William S. Harney, who commanded the killing of more than 70 Brule Lakota, including women and children, in 1855.

But it is a mistake to think that Baker is a one-sided critic of all things American, because he stresses that national history is a fabric woven of many strands. As a former superintendent at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, he insisted that Native and non-Native visitors and staff consider what the conflict meant to each side.

At Mount Rushmore, he noticed emotional responses at times from visitors, some of whom told him of deep feelings centering on the idea of freedom. At the same time, he points out that Abraham Lincoln, one of four presidents depicted there, helped end slavery but also ordered the deaths of 38 Dakota in 1862.

Baker spoke Sept. 17 as part of the “Modern Indian Identity” series of the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West.

In a wide-ranging address, he touched on themes of historical memory and the importance of the past, tradition and its modern applications, the universality of human values and experience, and the Park Service, in which he has held positions in Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota spanning 28 years.

Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, grew up on his father’s cattle ranch in western North Dakota.

Growing up, his family was only about 180 miles from the ancestral earth lodge village that became part of the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in North Dakota, where he began his career in 1979. But, as a youth, “we never went there” to the old village, he said.

“We had such a detailed history about smallpox that elders still believed it was there,” he said; they admonished him not to pick anything up, fearing he would get smallpox, bring it back and kill everyone – even though it was 1979, not 1837.

In later years, he literally immersed himself in the history of the old villages. He would announce himself at the doorway of an earth lodge, ask if he could enter, seat himself in the customary man’s place, and imagine the sounds of camp life from the past.

One day, the experience was particularly vivid. “I really believed this: had I taken one step farther back, I would have been there,” he said, but “I really felt if I went back there, I wouldn’t come back.”

The ease with which Baker experiences history was probably fostered in part by his early life in a log cabin built by his father and the stories told in Hidatsa in wintertime, when the children “couldn’t ask questions – we had to keep our mouths shut and listen.”

Lest one imagine that Baker focuses solely on the past, however, his approach to the controversial Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail bicentennial observation proves otherwise. He wanted “for us Indians to tell our side of the story,” not only from the past, but also “what we want to be in the next 200 years.”

“We’re not going to celebrate Lewis and Clark, but we will commemorate Lewis and Clark,” he told planners of the event.

Curiosity and controversy – seeming at times to go hand in hand for him – were part of his approach to an official bicentennial exhibition because he included “awful stories difficult to listen to” about boarding schools, losing languages and other events. But he also wanted people “to leave with more questions than answers” because then they would think about it and “be curious and ready to come back and try to find the answers.”

The same approach carried over to his stint as superintendent of Little Bighorn, formerly Custer National Battlefield, where “we changed ways of thinking there,” he said. “It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had.”

Some older Indian people came in to tell him how they were told the battle had occurred. For example, some people believe U.S. 7th Cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer died immediately, causing disorder on the battlefield; however, the important Indian oral histories are largely being recorded by non-Indians, he said.

Non-Native experiences of the battle tend to focus on skirmish lines, where others were located, and so on. Indian combatants, on the other hand, tended to experience battle within a 20-foot perimeter, thinking about why they were there, trying to see through the dust and black powder, and concentrating on other, more immediate things.

When asked what people felt the battle meant to both sides, however, it turned out both focused on children, families and freedom, he said.

Baker sought to dispel some other misconceptions as well.

The Lakota and Blackfeet were their enemies, but they all traded with one another and intermarried. “We didn’t really start killing until we got weapons and learned what it meant to be territorial.”

Although that kind of warfare has been described as “kind of a game” in which horses, women and children were “stolen,” it’s inaccurate, because “we don’t steal – that’s about ownership.”

Baker said that early in his career, he had no idea he would spend 28 years in the Park Service and 31 years in the federal government, but he has learned “we have to educate every day.”

Even now, he said, he was called “chief” when strolling around in Mount Rushmore out of uniform. His very first phone call as a superintendent – which he had anticipated eagerly – turned out to be from a Southern attorney who said racial preference got him the superintendent’s job.

“My ‘preferred alternative,’” he said, referring to the phrase as “government-speak,” “is to educate people as to who we were, who we are and where we are going.”