We swivelled like a dust vacuum through quite a few places during those last weeks of Walter. Stopped to see Chicago for an afternoon, Sioux Falls, Mount Rushmore, Bozeman, Billings, and Great Falls. Of these locations, I can only suck out the marrow of two: Mt. Rushmore and Great Falls. This isn’t because these were the most notorious, or because they reeked of culture, but because we had to shed light on two strange sights most people visit and do not question.
The more I think of this one, the more I shudder. In a time when it makes more sense to photograph a president, then forget about him, here sit four white, male political figures immortalized in South Dakota stone.
This mighty stone monster is perched in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Lush forest and rocks like melted ice cream make SD a real wonder to behold. But South Dakota had a heck of a time getting people to come out to those black rocks at the turn of the 20th century. So along comes Gutzon Borglum in 1927; an architect who wanted to draw people into the heart of the hills to increase tourism. Full of gusto and controversy, he saw a 150 year span of austere presidential chins staring down at him and knew he had to make this vision a reality.
Borglum chose the presidents based upon their track record of expanding US territory and ‘preserving the Republic.’ A little gem called Manifest Destiny (or basically the romantic notion that the US was destined to expand across the continent. God said so) gave Borglum some clear choices. He chose two Republicans, one Democrat, and George Washington (a libertarian, some might call him) as the mixed nuts. A strange mix if you ask me…
$900 000 and a dead architect later, you’ve got these guys plastering eternity:
The Father of Confederation (Washington). He was the first president of the US and expanded the colonies west (Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee). He incidentally believed that political partisanship would be the downfall of the country, and so could neither be called a Democrat nor Republican as we understand them. It was he who created the first national bank, and he, the Grand Master of the Freemasons. How fascinating. Washington’s teeth fell out at an early age and he had falsies made out of hippo ivory (not wood). The key to Washington’s tomb is still rusting in the Potomac river somewhere.
Third US president. A bookworm with a lisp that limited his public addresses, Jefferson harped a great deal about innate civil liberties. Apparently these liberties didn’t extend to people of colour, though. He owned 500 slaves and also signed the Indian Removal Act, illustrating that he wasn’t all too fond of people that didn’t look or act like he did. Apparently he was ambivalent about slavery… Hmm. Believing in as little federal regulation as possible, he and Arizona’s Jan Brewer would have gotten along swimmingly in our life and times. Except he didn’t think women should be in politics either. Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana doubled the size of the US. He died penniless, and was ranked as one of the US’s greatest presidents. Don’t ask me why.
The sixteenth president, Lincoln was the first to be assassinated. I kinda feel bad for this guy! While watching a play, a shot to the back of the head lodged a lead ball 6 inches into his brain. He died nine hours later. Lincoln’s first love died of typhoid. His four sons all died before reaching adulthood. Then his wife was committed to an asylum for bipolar disorder after his death. During his influential reign, he was a charismatic lawyer and leader. His Republican politics won the north over and he abolished slavery in 1863. However blacks, Indians and any other people of colour continued to suffer abhorrent discrimination. Although Lincoln was opposed to slavery, his wife Mary owned both dowry slaves and indentured servants that were passed on to their offspring. Yay, civil liberties! Borglum liked him because he preserved the Union.
Teddy (but don’t ever call him Teddy) was a spitfire man, and a president touting unbelievable tales. Known for his cowboy image, Theo spawned the Progressive party, won a Nobel Peace prize, wrote books, and was a police commissionare in New York for two years. If that wasn’t enough, he became the inspiration behind ‘teddy bears’ and donated large game animals from his African safari to national museums. Tidbit: Roosevelt also experienced an assassination attempt: his metal glasses case and a 50 page speech prevented the bullet from piercing his lung (he gave a 90 minute speech while the blood seeped through his shirt). Although he had asthma, Theo boxed, safaried, contracted malaria, and fought police corruption. Theo had a darker side to him. He furiously supported the eugenics movement (sterilizing criminals and the disabled) and he figured that since the black man could “neither be killed nor driven away, the only wise and honorable and Christian thing to do is to treat each black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man, giving him no more and no less that he shows himself worthy to have”. Theo also ranked as one of US’s greatest presidents.
Your merits truly shine, Teddy. Thanks for that virtue of tolerance.
What?? You think I’m only relating the bad stuff? The point of this whole post is to maintain your interest. So I’m not going to talk about boring stuff like the Louisiana Purchase. Got it? My ears bled vigorously from the loudspeaker propaganda the night Trav and I wandered up to the memorial. Not kidding, short of bombs going off, the fanfare was overwhelming. I’m committed to showing the presidential ‘other side.’ So if you ever visit, you’ll at least have a balanced perspective.
Anyway, after driving Walter through the gates at around 7pm, we paid our $10 parking fee (because only the privileged get to experience national history). We were told Rushmore would light up at 9pm, complete with Girl Scouts and Ranger Dave speech. How could we miss it?
We passed the next two hours taking photos and listening to a weird man in a leather jacket explain how he’d been there last night and had hiked a vertical hike and it was very impressive because it so vertical. Trav and I munched a disgusting popcorn ball and waited and waited.
Then the jubilations began. Mr. Park Ranger delivered a touching (see wet with patriotism) speech. He talked about how we all needed to unite with each other, and that Rushmore was a symbol of progress and equality. He even mentioned that all races and creeds of folks are cool cats even, “[those] of us who, because of our freedoms as Americans, are of no religious faith at all” —he kind of stumbled mumbled that part. The four presidents above nodded their heads in agreement. Hmm, that wasn’t in the brochure.
The lights went low and the national anthem rang out. People of all backgrounds began singing, hands over hearts. Then, of course, people pledged their allegiance to the flag (the ‘one nation under God’ part was actually added in the ’50s). Even tourists from overseas trilled their allegiance in battered English, while tears streamed down their faces. How touching.
The whole experience left us bewildered. The heads began to take on a demonic, shadowy countenance before our very eyes.
We quietly stifled our anti-nationalism and took it all in like champs. It’s okay if you think your country is the best, but thinking that just makes you brittle and wrong and can wind you up in some really scalding hot water. I repeat: you really shouldn’t think your country is the best. It hurts other countries’ feelings.
So as the awe dripped over the crowd and we viewed a patriotically charged film filled with soaring bald eagles, waving flags, and our forefathers’ concepts of progress, Travis and I looked at each other deeply, grasped hands… and left Mount Rushmore.
Mr. Park Ranger: we have a couple suggestions for things you really should cover in your speech next time… (I did some research)
- Gutzon Borglum was not only a brilliant architect, he was also a card-carrying member of the KuKluxKlan (see for yourself). You should have probably shared that with the visible minorities. Borglum tried to downplay that little tidbit. He also happened to have a step-mother who was his aunt (his dad belonged to a polygamist group in Idaho) and had quite a temper.
- The presidents chosen were all old, white males. I’d like to see Obama up there. Or perhaps a future female president. Apparently, the Rushmore project ran out of money or artists would have finished those men chin to waist. They say there’s no room for more faces up there. But I think those four are just being nasty.
- The Black Hills land where Rushmore squats, legally belongs to the Lakota Indians. It was ‘commandeered’ after a treaty in the 1800s was violated by gold prospectors and settlers. Folks of the 19th and 20th centuries believed in manifest destiny. They were convinced that American Indians were ”destined to melt and vanish before the advancing waves of Anglo-American power, which now rolled westward unchecked and unopposed.” Philip Fisher (1985). Wow. Just wow.
- Indians in the area (not of the country India, but the designation they were given by North Americans) are currently constructing their own statue called Crazy Horse. Sadly, funding has dried up, and only the beginning of the face can be deciphered. The statue is symbolic of the rights of the people; and it’s incomplete state is a symbol of the turbulence between local natives and the lovely current inhabitants who would like to move past that ‘unfortunate time’.
- Rushmore is a tourist trap. Well, maybe not the rock itself. But the surrounding goofy attractions are. Watch out for helicopter rides, mini golf, wave pools, wild safari parks, and Rushmore gift shops that will bleed you dry.
So that’s that.
You can read more about the history of Mount Rushmore if you want to (watch for the baby grabbing his genitals as he sits atop his father’s shoulders). But I personally recommend that if you want to see Rushmore, see this one instead.
☝ Back to top. ☝