Knowing Our True History: A Sacred Site Defaced

Cougar Mountain/ Black Hills/ The Six Grandfathers Mountain

Mount Rushmore is part of the Black Hills mountain range in South Dakota. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum started work on the monument in 1927 and completed it in 1941. The structure shows the faces of American presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt. But before their faces were carved there, the mountain was called Six Grandfathers. American Indian Studies Associate Professor David Martinez of Arizona State University described the area as “indisputably sacred to the Lakota and a number of other indigenous nations.”

References to the mountain’s original name can be found in a 2016 study conducted by experts contracted by the National Park Service in conjunction with Lakota scholars. Victor Douville, history and culture coordinator in the Lakota Studies Department in Sinte Gleska University, described the story of the mountain’s naming by Hehaka Sapa, or Black Elk, a medicine man:

“Before it was called Six Grandfathers Mountain, it was called Cougar Mountain (Igmu Tanka Paha) because of many cougars or mountain lions living in the vicinity. Then around the early part of 1870, an experience by a Lakota medicine man changed the name to Six Grandfathers because of the six outcrops of the mountain and a dream or a vision.”

The Six Grandfathers mountain was considered the heart of what the Lakota call the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, that played a central role in the vision of Black Elk. He was said to have gained entrance to the spirit world, and was granted powers by six grandfathers in order to prepare him for a life of helping his people through coming trials brought by white people.

According to Douville, the Lakota’s association with the region is older than most people realize. He noted that the Lakota sat in the Black Hills 3,600 years ago and while many eventually migrated, some remained and that those who returned in 1776, re-discovered the hills.

Douville described how the Lakota also view a section of the Black Hills as the center of their world, where they conduct their worship, especially during the summer solstice to welcome back all life. It was also a place that sustained life, a game reserve they tapped in times of hunger.

The Lakota considered the carving of the four presidents’ faces on what was once Six Grandfathers, a defacement of their sacred site, especially as “those four people had a lot to do with destroying our people’s land base,” Douville said. Indeed, Washington waged war against Native American tribes, Jefferson was considered the architect of policies that would result in the removal of Native Americans from their lands, Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 Dakota Native American rebels, the largest mass execution in American history, and Roosevelt systematically removed Native Americans from their lands.

In 1868 the U.S. government and the Sioux people signed a treaty, setting aside lands west of the Missouri River for the Lakota and Arapaho tribes. The U.S. guaranteed exclusive tribal occupation of reservation lands, including the Black Hills. The treaty also reserved most of present-day northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana as “unceded Indian territory,” off limits to white people without the Lakotas’ consent. But within nine years of the treaty’s ratification, Congress seized the Black Hills.

How did it start? Like many conflicts, with gold. While most Lakotas settled on reservation lands, a few thousand rejected the 1868 treaty and made homes in unceded territory. Lakota historians note that they had no quarrel with the “white man” as long as they stayed out of Lakota territory. This changed drastically in 1874 when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his troops discovered gold in the Black Hills. Although Custer’s official mission, legal under the treaty, was to find a site for an Army post, in reality he was illegally scouting for resources in the region.

President Ulysses S. Grant faced increasing pressure to annex the hills, so he convened a secret White House cabal to plan war against the Lakotas. According to documents in the Library of Congress, and numerous experts including History Professor Philip Deloria at Harvard University, the administration launched an illegal war. Grant began with rough diplomacy, pushing Lakota chiefs into a corner in 1875 when they came to the White House to protest shortages of government rations for their people, while miners poured into the hills at the same time.

It has been claimed that Grant secretly ordered the Army not to protect local tribes, a reference to the Army’s halfhearted efforts in stopping gold prospectors. Though the Army initially tried to enforce the 1868 treaty, soldiers eventually stopped trying, according to John Taliaferro, author of Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore.

According to Deloria, “The conflict that followed came about because the government proved unable or unwilling to keep American miners and settlers out of the [Black] Hills.” While Grant wasn’t secretly ordering the Army to allow miners in, military personnel appeared to have “a tacit understanding” to no longer interfere, Deloria said. In 1875, Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, one of Grant’s co-conspirators, wrote a confidential order to the commander in Dakota:

… the President decided that while the orders heretofore issued forbidding the occupation of the Black Hills country by miners should not be rescinded, still no fixed resistance by the military should be made to the miners going in ….

In December 1875, non-treaty Native Americans were given an ultimatum: Go to the reservations voluntarily or by military force. The result was the Great Sioux War of 1876.

In September 1876, Lakota elders reluctantly signed the first land-grab agreement to give up all lands outside their immediate reservation, as well as the Black Hills, but according to Taliaferro, even this agreement was illegitimate because the treaty of 1868 stipulated that ceding any portion of reservation land would be invalid unless “executed and signed by at least three fourths of all the adult male Indians.” Signatories of this latest agreement fell far short of that requirement.

By 1877 most Native Americans had surrendered or fled to Canada.

In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court, concluding a long-running case brought by the Sioux Nation, confirmed the illegality of the government’s actions, ruling that the Native Americans were entitled to damages for the theft of their land. But Native Americans refused to collect the sum (accruing interest, it now exceeds a billion dollars), saying their land was not for sale. The court also remarked on Grant’s actions: “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”

In sum, the U.S. government did seize the land illegally from the Lakota people after the discovery of gold. Grant’s orders to the Army formed an understanding that their soldiers were no longer supposed to enforce rules preventing miners and settlers from entering Lakota territory. While it was not necessarily a “secret,” it did involve duplicitous means that were only acknowledged almost a century later.

After Grant ordered the Army to not stop prospectors from entering Black Hills, bounty hunters began collecting as much as $300 per Native American killed.

Who was paying the bounties?

George Harwood Phillips, a retired professor of history at the University of Colorado, wrote in a paper for the South Dakota Historical Society that

… by 1870 the rush was on in earnest. The first settlers went to Dakota hoping to make their fortunes. They wanted to plat town sites, to organize governments, to build railroads, and to promote immigration. They felt that the presence of the Indians halted progress — and they hated and feared them. To many, the solution was to kill the Indians and dissolve the Indian Bureau. Settlers paid bounties for Indian scalps, fed them poisoned bread, and organized Indian hunting parties…

Taliaferro documented an instance of a county placing bounties on Native Americans, as miners began staking claims to search for gold across the Black Hills, and remnants of the Lakota resisted them:

  “The commissioners of newly formed Lawrence County put a bounty of $250 ‘for the body of each and every Indian, killed or captured, dead or alive.’ Setting its own bounty of $50, Deadwood [a town in the county] rationalized that ‘killing Indians was conducive to the health of the community.’ “

At the federal level, there was no reason to pay soldiers bounties for killing Indians. That was their job. During the 1870s the Lakota were considered “hostile” if they didn’t comply with the Army, and in those cases soldiers were ordered to treat them as enemies in the field.

Did the KKK have a role in the creation of Mount Rushmore?

Borglum, the designer and sculptor of Mount Rushmore, was approached in 1914 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to create a “shrine to the South” on Georgia’s Stone Mountain, about a thousand miles south from where Mount Rushmore would be. In 1915, the KKK, which had faded during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, experienced rebirth in a ceremony on Stone Mountain.

According to Taliaferro, Borglum was an avid and influential supporter of the KKK, attended their rallies, served on their committees, and saw them as a sure source of funds for his work on Stone Mountain. The KKK did financially back the Stone Mountain project, but infighting within the Klan by the mid-1920s, as well as stalled fundraising for the monument, led Borglum to leave the project. His backers on Stone Mountain were enraged when he was approached by a historian to take on the Mount Rushmore project in South Dakota. But by 1927, he began carving Mount Rushmore, devoting the last 14 years of his life to the project, which was finished by his son.

Borglum and the Mount Rushmore committee struggled to find funds for Rushmore, scraping together finances from magnates and from a senator. By 1929, the project received federal funding. Out of the total expenditure of $989,000, the government had contributed $836,000. In other words, tax payers paid for it!

While the man behind Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum, was very closely aligned with the KKK, that organization itself did not fund the monument’s creation. Nevertheless, the monument is tied to a racist past, highlighting figureheads who were slave owners and who despised by Native Americans. It was built on land that was, indeed, stolen by the U.S. government.

[NOTE: Most information above is from research done by]