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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

My First Trip to Mount Rushmore

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Driving from Lander, Wyoming to Lemmon, South Dakota we encounter vast stretches of open road surrounded by seemingly endless grasses and wheat, some young corn, hay bales rolled up in giant cylinders, cows, calves, heifers, bulls, steers, horses, colts, all huddling together to ward off large biting flies and block the dry, hot wind that breaks apart your lips and forces you to squint. We pass through places like Mule Creek Junction, Powderhouse Lodge, Bear Butte, Spearfish, and Mud Butte.

We stop in Sturgis, South Dakota in the Black Hills, named after Lieutenant Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis who in 1877 hunted down Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians, to have a free lunch at the "Boulder Canyon Bar and Grill." The newly opened beer and burger joint is owned by my in-laws' family who were anxiously awaiting the onslaught of over 300,000 Harley-Davidson enthusiasts who will soon descend on the little town for the 67th Annual Sturgis Rally biker fest. The roads of Sturgis will be choked with choppers and concession stands, middle-aged motorcyclists in lots of leather and scantily clad biker babes.

We push onward through the Black Hills toward the icon of America: Mount Rushmore. I have never visited it before. Like everyone else, I've seen the image of Mount Rushmore represented in a million different ways, which brings to mind Walter Benjamin's famous essay on the reproduction of artistic images. I've seen the faces of Mount Rushmore on T-shirts, television commercials, talking animation, coffee mugs, and so on; and who could ever forget George W. Bush's photo-op where his head appeared in the frame in the exact same proportions as the heads of the granite sculptures?

My first reaction upon seeing the archetypal American Mountain was how small it is. It's really dinky compared with the image I had in my mind. Then I thought this monument has everything definitively "American" contained within it.

The mountain itself was named after a New York corporate lawyer, Charles E. Rushmore, who plied his trade to help rapacious mining corporations stake claim to Native American lands and make a fortune for the Harney Peak Consolidated Tin Company.

The Danish-American sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, who designed and carved the monument, developed a strong kinship with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the modern Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, which was quite active in the Black Hills at the time Borglum began his work in the mid-1920s, fronted much-needed cash for the project. Borglum was a nativist sympathizer who was associated with one of the more virulent and violent factions of the racist terror group.

Theodore Roosevelt's mug is thrown in with the "father" of the country, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the Great Emancipator. It is a testimony to TR's immense ego as the rightful heir to the immortal's legacy in the same way some Republicans in the 1990s were clamoring to pass legislation to carve Ronald Reagan's face up there. At least TR helped hold at bay the timber and mining trusts that would not have hesitated a second in cutting down every tree and strip mining every hill had it not been for his conservation efforts. (Reagan would have let them do it.)

Thomas Jefferson sent out Lewis and Clark who "discovered" the Black Hills for the white settlers. George Washington set the precedent of giving land that belonged to Native Americans in upstate New York to Revolutionary War veterans as payment for their service. Both of them owned slaves.

Abraham Lincoln, after great hesitation, gave into the abolitionists and freed the slaves only to become the first president to be assassinated, and by a conspiracy no less. I wonder how old "Honest Abe" would feel if he learned that a sculptor who aligned himself with a racist terror group that was dedicated to ensuring that freed blacks did not exercise their elementary human rights had chiseled his visage into granite?

At Mount Rushmore there is a lovely viewing area and even a stage where a band of Native American musicians, called "Airo," performed an "American Indian Rock Opera" appropriately blending trance electronica with indigenous-sounding melodies.

The crowds at Mount Rushmore clearly come from Middle America. I could see from their license plates that they came from Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, the South, etc. Visions of Wonder Bread, Velveeta cheese, and glasses of milk danced in my head. I saw one African-American family.

The kicker for me was when I went into the enormous gift shop to buy some souvenirs. I was looking at Mount Rushmore coffee mugs and key chains and shot glasses and jewelry and commemorative plates, etc. I found an interesting paperweight type artifact with Mount Rushmore carved in miniature that looked pretty cool. I turned it upside down to see how much it cost. The inscription on the bottom read: "Made in China."

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