Mount Rushmore Now Offers Pre-Carving History Visitors to Mount Rushmore expect to see the carved faces of four U.S. presidents. But a new exhibit of a Native American village may come as a surprise. The exhibit describes life in the Black Hills, land sacred to the Lakota Sioux, before the stone carvings.
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Mount Rushmore Now Offers Pre-Carving History

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Mount Rushmore Now Offers Pre-Carving History

Mount Rushmore Now Offers Pre-Carving History

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

Well, if you do go away this summer you might want to take in a national park. This week at NPR, we've been exploring many of our national parks. Today we'll visit South Dakota's Mt. Rushmore. Nearly three million visitors go there every year to gawk at the massive stone sculpture of the presidents and as Jim Kent reports, this year Mt. Rushmore National Park is trying to point tourists to something else.

JIM KENT: I'm standing on a grassy ledge just below Mt. Rushmore. Now, one thing you expect to see when you come here is the carved faces of four of our presidents. One thing you don't expect to see is a Native American village, but this year that's exactly what you'll see.

Mr. GERARD BAKER (Superintendent, Mt. Rushmore National Memorial): When I came in four years ago as the new superintendent here, one thing that I started understanding was the need to update more people as far as the history of the Black Hills.

KENT: That's Gerard Baker, superintendent of Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. He's a Mandan-Hidatsa American Indian and is standing next to the newly erected Native American village, just off one of the memorial's main walking paths. Baker says establishing a place where visitors can learn about the history of these Black Hills before faces were carved into one of them and called Mt. Rushmore has been a long-time dream.

Mr. BAKER: I think it's one of the most exciting things we can do, because, again the National Park does back this up. That we're educating and that's what we're trying to do here is we're trying to educate. You know, we've got 2.8 million visitors a year here and a lot of them from out of the state, a lot of them from out of the country, and they're fascinated by the American Indians. They're fascinated by how they used to live.

Ms. BETTY STREET (Member, Chippewa Tribe): They used porcupine needles to decorate their clothes.

KENT: Betty Street is a member of the Chippewa tribe, and she's telling visitors how American Indians traditionally used parts of a buffalo that she has spread out on a table beside her, the hide, horn, tail and even a bladder.

Ms. STREET: Now this part held...

Unidentified Woman: It's a shower cap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STREET: You know that would be good for today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STREET: It held water for the buffalo, now it also held water for the Native American. It was a bladder.

KENT: Street says reminding visitors about the area's original occupants is part of the Mount Rushmore experience that has been missing.

Ms. STREET: It is important because people forget that they owned this land and that they - it was very important to them culturally.

Mr. EUGENIO WHITE HAWK (Member, Pine Ridge Reservation): The lodge is a home to the Lakota people. We - it's made from - originally, it's made from the buffalo.

KENT: Sitting on buffalo robes beside a cold campfire inside one of the village teepees, Eugenio White Hawk explains the cultural significance of this portable animal hide house.

Mr. WHITE HAWK: While we're sitting around in camp fires in the wintertime or any other time, this is where we get all our stories from the elders. These stories that are very important to our people. The stories about how the earth was created. How the Lakota people, the man came upon the earth. How we done our religion ceremonies and so forth.

KENT: White Hawk is Oglala Lakota from South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, about 100 miles away. While he's happy to share information about his culture with visitors, his primary concern is explaining just how sacred the Black Hills are to his tribe and others.

Mr. WHITE HAWK: We're religious people here, so, I mean, if the white people can understand that, I think that our world will be a lot better. If we can understand how our religion is. We respect a lot of the Mother Earth's gifts, such as the water, the ground, and the air. And we need to keep it clean.

Unidentified Man: Have a good day.

KENT: So the message isn't just the faces of famous U.S. presidents immortalized in stone, but Native Americans and their relationship with the earth. Ten-year-old Connor Leech (ph) is visiting today from Maine, and he seems to be getting the message. ..TEXT: Mr. CONNOR LEECH (Visitor): Oh, well, it's kind of nice that they're doing that, because the Indians do have a nice right to be here. And, I mean, this was their sacred mountains.

KENT: Few national parks are more well-known than Mount Rushmore has been for the last three quarters of a century. Yet, though the main feature is literally carved in stone, the parks service is still teaching about the area's history before the four presidents showed up. For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Our website, npr.org has historical photos showing the evolution of Mount Rushmore. And while you're there, why don't you send us some photos from your family trips to national parks. We will post some of them later in the week.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: There's more ahead when Day to Day continues.

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