The Story Behind the Black Hills


The Heart of Everything That Is is what the Black Hills have been known as to the Lakota, or Lakota Sioux, tribe. This location has been a sacred area for several indigenous tribes in South Dakota for hundreds of years. However, you might know this site as Mount Rushmore, a magnificent monument of patriotism or the “Shrine of Democracy,” depicting four of our country’s significant figures carved in granite. But this piece of land is far from the patriotic symbol we’ve come to know. In fact, it is an example of how America’s forgotten sins continue to haunt us today.

The Black Hills have long been sacred land to multiple indigenous tribes such as the Shoshone, Salish, Kootenai Crow, Mandan, Arikara, and the Lakota. In 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie stated that the hills were reserved for the Lakota tribe and was their land. So what changed? Gold. And lots of it. U.S. prospectors overran the area and began forcing the Lakota people with intimidation and violence to give up their native land. Leaders and warriors such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull led resistances against these forces, but the land was ultimately stolen in 1877, breaking the Treaty and dishonoring the Lakota tribe.

Although not much is known about these battles, Dee Brown’s 1970 Native American history book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee explained how the final battle was in fact a massacre, where hundreds of unarmed Lakota adults and children were shot at by U.S. troops. This sparked the people of the American Indian Movement (AIM) to occupy the land in 1973, eventually leading to the involvement of the FBI. This became known as the Second Siege at Wounded Knee and led to violence and death on both sides.

The Lakota also sued the U.S. Government for theft, a legal fight that continued for decades and made it to the Supreme Court. In 1980, the ruling was final and entitled the Lakota to $17.1 million. However, the Lakota have refused to accept this money, wanting only their land back.

In addition to legal battles, countless peaceful protests have taken place as indigenous activists continue to fight for their land back. Large, organized protests occur annually in the summers, often accompanied by arrests when protesters ascend the mountain. 

To get a better understanding of the true impact of all of this, we need to rewind to when Mount Rushmore was built. The construction took place between 1927 and 1941 and was led by Gutzon Borglum, a sculptor who had ties to the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. Since then, the carved faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, adorn the sacred site. Although these figures were incredibly significant in United States’ history, we must also note all that they stood for. Washington and Jefferson were both slave owners, Abraham Lincoln unfairly sentenced 38 Native Dakota men to death in 1862, and Theodore Roosevelt oversaw a huge dismantling of a Native American territory in Oklahoma which caused a forced migration of thousands of indigenous people fleeing their homes. These faces are now the crown jewel of the sacred Black Hills and it’s no surprise that people are angry.

However, a small but worthy victory occurred while Rushmore was still being built in 1939. Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear invited sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to carve a memorial in the Black Hills. Ziolkowski personally financed the entire project and began a freestanding sculpture of the great Sioux chief Crazy Horse, which was to be even larger than a Rushmore figure and was finally completed in 1998.

These stories are small pieces in a larger puzzle. Across the country and spanning millennium, indigenous land has been stolen and unfairly profited off of. The story of the Black Hills is the perfect example of profiting off of prejudice, and how America’s long-time sin of theft from indigenous people and their fight back is far from over. Not only was this sacred land taken and depicts the faces of figures with problematic pasts, but most of the two million tourists who visit the site each year have no idea of the real story behind this ¨Shrine of Democracy.¨ Many indigenous activists have spoken about their awareness of the fact that the monument will never be taken down, but they hope more steps will be taken to educate tourists and tell their story. As America continues to grapple with monuments, racist pasts, and the reclamation of stories, Mount Rushmore will continue to be a site haunted by one of America’s most notorious sins that will only stay hidden if we let it.

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Sources from Kent UK, PBS, Indian Country Today, and National Geographic.

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Ariana Bhargava is a high school student based in Massachusetts. She writes for Reclamation and Brown Girl Magazine and is passionate about storytelling, activism, and photography.