TravelExplainer

The heartbreaking, controversial history of Mount Rushmore

Tourists flock to South Dakota’s massive presidential portraits. How they got there is a complex tale of land grabs, egos, and foiled movie scenes.

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Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, was carved on the granite face of a mountain in the Black Hills between 1927 and 1941. Funding problems made the project take longer than was originally expected.

Built on sacred Native American land and sculpted by a man with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, Mount Rushmore National Memorial was fraught with controversy even before it was completed 79 years ago on October 31, 1941.

Mount Rushmore pays patriotic tribute to four United States presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—with 60-foot-tall faces carved into a mountainside in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Over the years, the monument has drawn protests over its location on indigenous land, debates about whether another commander-in-chief deserves a spot on the mountain, and a Hollywood controversy over an Alfred Hitchcock movie partially filmed on the site.

To understand how Mount Rushmore has become a cultural symbol and flash point, here’s a look at how the memorial came to be.

Stolen land

Before it became known as Mount Rushmore, the Lakota called this granite formation Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain. It was a place for prayer and devotion for the Native people of the Great Plains, explains Donovin Sprague, head of the history department at Sheridan College in Wyoming and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The mountain’s location in the Black Hills was also significant.

“It’s the center of the universe of our people,” Sprague says. For Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho communities, the region was not only spiritually important, it was also where tribes gathered food and plants they used in building and medicine.

In the late 1800s, Euro-American settlers began pushing into the...

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