Two things happened nearly simultaneously at Mount Rushmore a couple of weeks ago. First, the only Native American superintendent to ever be in charge at the Memorial, Gerard Baker, Mandan Hidatsa, decided that his new job as liaison for the National Park Service for the Indian nations would take him away from his home in the Black Hills and from his family much too much and since he had reached the point in his career where he could retire, he decided to take it.
Mr. Baker's health has not been so good of late. He had open heart surgery and several months ago he had a mini-stroke that still causes him headaches and he made the wise choice of taking the time to enjoy his family and his many friends while he was still able to do so.
Mr. Baker brought renovations to Mount Rushmore that should have been a part of the landscape from day one. As a Native American he knew the sacredness of the Hills to the local tribes and he wondered why the history, culture and the traditions of Native Americans were totally absent from the Memorial.
After all, he surmised, the Black Hills were never taken legally from the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, but were stolen surreptitiously and dishonorably. Of course he also knew that this was not the way most white people saw it.
Most whites followed the writings and teachings of the white authors, anthropologists and historians who claimed that the local tribes had only been in the Black Hills for a short time and therefore they had as much right to it as the Indians. None of the experts ever wanted to listen to the oral history of the tribes who saw the Black Hills as their place of origin. And please do not be offended by my use of the words "white or whites" in this column because there is still a battle ongoing between 'Indians' and 'whites' in South Dakota and that is the verbiage used to describe both races.
What most whites failed to take into consideration is that it didn't matter how long the local tribes had claimed the Black Hills because that was settled when the United States government tried to purchase the Hills from the local tribes recognizing their inherent ownership. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 put it in writing proclaiming the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation as legal title holders to the Black Hills.
Then why wasn't this historic fact a part and parcel of the presentations and exhibits at Mount Rushmore? That is the question that bothered Mr. Baker so much so that against the wishes and the judgment of many of his fellow park rangers and supervisors, he decided that ignoring the culture of the rightful owners of the Hills was wrong and it smacked of institutional racism.
The other thing that followed hot on the heels of Mr. Baker's retirement was the first anniversary of the Greenpeace incident. In this event members of the organization breached the security devices set up at the Memorial and made it to the top of President Lincoln's head long enough to drape Greenpeace banners from it. The locals considered this to be one of the most awful things ever to happen at Mount Rushmore and immediately pointed their darts of hate at Mr. Baker, and when he said that the security system worked as it was intended, they nearly blew their lids. If they had been the least bit fair and inquisitive they would have discovered that the security system did work as it was set up to work, but Mr. Baker could not have known that a couple of the security cameras were on the blink.
So instead of lauding Mr. Baker for all of the good he had done for his fellow Native Americans and for all fair-minded white Americans, at his retirement the local media rehashed and rehashed the Greenpeace breach. "Oh my god, what if they had been terrorists?" Yeah, right; terrorists have nothing better to with their time than to attack an inanimate object like a mountain.
Well, Greenpeace be damned: Gerard Baker was the best superintendent ever to gaze upon the four faces of the Memorial and it is too bad that the two-faced bigots condemning him refuse to learn and accept the history of the people who were here long before them.
Oh yes, the new superintendent that replaces Mr. Baker is Cheryl Schreier and she has some mighty big shoes to fill. We can only hope that she realizes that until the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation surrender ownership of the Black Hills, it is still their property and all of the wonderful additions made to the Memorial by Mr. Baker must not only stay there permanently, but they should be expanded to include all of the history of the true landlords of the Black Hills.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by Independent Book Publishers. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org