US president Donald Trump chose Mount Rushmore for his Independence Day speech this year. It was symbolic at a time when the country has been rocked by anti-racism protests as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
What is Mount Rushmore?
It is a memorial situated in South Dakota. It features 60-foot face carvings of four US Presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
The idea to carve the granite face of Black Hills was conceived by historian Doane Robinson in 1923, who thought it could promote tourism in the region. Robinson wrote to sculptor Gutzon Borglum in 1924, suggesting that he “design and supervise a massive sculpture there”. Borglum responded that he was “very much interested” in the proposal.
Subsequently, Congress passed legislation authorising the carving of “heroic figures” commemorating the national history in the Harney National Forest, which is now called the Black Hills National Forest.
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Borglum chose Mount Rushmore as the site for carving since it was the highest peak in the vicinity, had resistant granite, and faced the southeast and therefore would receive good light throughout most of the day. Borglum selected these four Presidents since he felt they represented the most important events in the history of the US. The carving began in 1927 and was complete in 1941. Borglum died in March 1941, after which his son Lincoln took over the project for the remaining seven months.
Why is it important?
The US National Parks Service says that over the years, Mount Rushmore “has grown in fame as a symbol of America — a symbol of freedom and hope for people from all cultures and backgrounds”. “All the cultures that make up the fabric of this country are represented by the memorial and surrounding Black Hills,” NPS says on its website. (In fact, it has long been criticised by Native Americans who claim it was built on their indigenous land.)
It is so familiarly associated with the United States that it has featured repeatedly in popular culture. Its best-known depiction was in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film ‘North by Northwest’, the climax of which had Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint’s characters scaling down Mount Rushmore while being chased by James Mason’s men until they are rescued.
While the establishing shots and footage for the film’s climax were shot at the monument itself, the remainder of the scene were filmed on the MGM sound stages since the National Park Service did not give permission to shoot any violent scenes on the memorial.
The climactic scene was subsequently parodied in other films. The memorial has been referenced in the Justice League Adventure comics, in the film ‘Star Trek V: The Final Frontier’ and in the television series ‘Life After People’ among many others.
But why is it criticised?
Trump’s choice of venue came at a time when activists of the Black Lives Matter protests have pulled down statues of several figures who were associated with racism. Indeed, some activists have been calling for pulling down the monument because it was built on Native American land. The Native Americans view the memorial as a symbol of desecration of land considered sacred by the Lakota Sioux tribe.
According to the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868, the US offered territory including Black Hills to the Sioux Nation in perpetuity. But their ownership lasted till gold was discovered in the mountains in the 1870s, after which the federal government forced the tribe to relinquish ownership of Black Hills.
The choice of the four Presidents too is controversial: Some critics view their policies devoted to the complete “annihilation or subjugation” of the Indigenous people. Lincoln has been criticised for his response to the Minnesota Uprising — over 300 Native Americans were sentenced to death after they were accused of attacking white settlers in 1862.
So, what did Trump say?
Trump criticised the “angry mobs” that have been defacing statues commemorating Confederate generals in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. He alleged that the “movement” is “openly attacking” the legacy of “every person” on Mount Rushmore.
He also mentioned an executive order he signed last week as per which an individual found defacing or damaging a federal statue or monument can get a minimum of ten years in prison. “And obviously that includes our beautiful Mount Rushmore,” he said.
“This monument will never be desecrated, these heroes will never be defaced, their legacy will never, ever be destroyed, their achievements will never be forgotten, and Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom,” he said.
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