The Making of Mount Rushmore

The 70th anniversary of the completion of the South Dakota monument prompts a look back at what it took to create it

Ninety percent of Mount Rushmore was carved using dynamite. (Paul A. Souders / Corbis)

Controversy at the Memorial

Mount Rushmore protest and Crazy Horse
(Blaine Harrington III / Corbis; Maggie Steber / National Geographic Society / Corbis)
That year, nearly 400,000 people visited Borglum’s “shrine of democracy.” To put that success in perspective, according to National Park Service records, that same year around the same number visited the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.

Yet, for all its admirers, Mount Rushmore had, and continues to have, its critics. When Robinson first spoke in the 1920s of carving into the Black Hills, environmentalists were outraged. Why, they thought, did men have to mar the natural beauty of a mountain? Perhaps the strongest opposition has come from American Indians. Many local Lakota see Mount Rushmore as a desecration of their sacred homeland. To add insult to injury, the carving, of four white men, is a reminder of the affliction the Lakota faced.

The Treaty of Fort Laramie, hashed out between the United States and the Lakota in 1868, declared the Black Hills to be Lakota land. But, in the 1870s, at the behest of President Ulysses S. Grant, a small army led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer occupied the region. Gold was struck, and a rush of panhandlers began to illegally settle the area. The Great Sioux War erupted in 1876, and by 1877, an act of Congress forced the defeated Lakota to surrender their land.

In the 1930s, Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear took one stance. He hired a sculptor by the name of Korczak Ziolkowski to carve the face of Crazy Horse, the legendary Lakota leader, in a cliff just 15 miles away. Wrapped in its own controversy, the construction of the Crazy Horse Memorial, which eclipses Mount Rushmore in size, continues to this day. The memorial has refused government grants and is funded by visitors and private donors.

Meanwhile, Gerard Baker, Mount Rushmore’s first American Indian superintendent, from 2004 to 2010, took another. Under his leadership, park rangers began to include the Lakota perspective in the telling of Mount Rushmore’s history. “There will probably always be the ongoing debate of the desecration of the ancestral homeland for the American Indians,” says Bracewell. “But we hope that with conversations, and by openly acknowledging and talking about it, we can help heal the divide a little bit.”


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