What is in a name?

July 18, 2012

Stop sign with Mt. Rushmore in the background

Copyright 2012 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

A few months ago, I spent some time on the Pine Ridge Native American Indian Reservation as part of an Alternative Spring Break trip. The organization with whom we worked,  Re-Member, provided an extensive educational/cultural program regarding the Lakota people so as to provide volunteers with a sense of the Reservation, its history, and current issues.

These talks were delivered by members of the Lakota tribe and one issue that was mentioned several times was the significance of the Black Hills to the Native Americans.  It was the Lakota who named them the “Black Hills” (as translated from the original Lakota) and to the Lakota this was a sacred place to be respected.

There is historical precedent for newcomers changing the name of areas already designated by native peoples.  Bill Challis did this with the Black Hills when he decided to refer to the one of the tallest mountains in the Black Hills as “Rushmore” after attorney Charles E. Rushmore, as described in the National Park Service brochure for the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Another example from our history is Denali, which is the Athabaskan name for the mountain later re-named after President McKinley in the late 1800s.  The British have the same tradition-Lake Victoria was previously known as Nalubaale by the indiginous Baganda peoples until John Hanning Speke re-named it in honour of the British Queen, as discussed here.

It is worth reading through the NPS brochure to learn about the purpose, plan, and creation of the monument, as it is quite an achievement.  It also states that “Mount Rushmore is host to almost three million visitors a year … (who)…come to learn about the birth, growth, development, and preservation of our country.”  What is not mentioned is the Lakota and the history of how the United States reneged on the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 that had given control of this area to them.  It would appear that some Lakota see the monument being placed there as an affront to their culture, especially since two of the presidents, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners.

The visit to Mount Rushmore also provoked controversy among our group.  On one hand, several were outraged that we would go there after having learned what happened to the Lakota and how the Black Hills were first signed over and then taken back (after the discovery of gold)  by the U.S. government in one of the many broken treaties.  On the other hand were several who looked at the carvings in the mountain as a technological marvel and of historical significance based on that point, if nothing else.

Mount Rushmore is an architectural achievement and a sight to see.  At the same time, it is important to not overlook the cultural significance of the Black Hills to the Lakota and the other tribes originally living in the area.  For instance, the brochure reports several factors that led to the selection of the Black Hills as the location and this choice can be called into question.  It would certainly have taken some effort to find another mountain with similar light conditions (a major factor in the selection of this site) and geologic formation (a second major factor), but it might not have been in South Dakota (probably the most significant factor as generating tourism to the state was a prime concern).  The brochure does not mention any consideration afforded to the Native tribes of the area with regard to the creation of the monument.  This is a point not to be minimized.  However, given that the Lakota were forbidden by law from speaking their native language until the 1970s-the construction of Mount Rushmore was begun in 1927-cultural sensitivity was most likely not part of the decision-making process when choosing this location.  Their name would not have mattered.  Such as it was for the Lakota in the 19th into the 20th century.

What is in a name?  It is that which signifies who we are on a very primal level.  F0r example, if the name of one’s home state were to be changed by another group,  residents of that state would then be referred to by another name with an altogether different meaning.  This would also no doubt create some very strong feelings.  To be re-named without permission or choice would appear to be fundamentally disrespectful.  On top of that, to so dramatically alter the physical appearance of the location…

Take care.

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