Historic changes for Mount Rushmore
David Melmer Indian Country -- Gerard Baker, Hidatsa-Mandan, superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Monument.
David Melmer / Indian Country Today
First American Indian heads shrine to democracy
MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL, S.D. - Future visitors to the nation;s shrine to democracy will experience subtle differences in the programs over the next few years and come away with a better understanding of history and the four presidents whose faces are carved in the Black Hills' granite.
Many people visit the memorial and feel a sense of renewed patriotism and freedom - and that won't be lost, said Gerard Baker, memorial superintendent.
The changes may be controversial to some, welcomed by others, but things will gradually change. The American Indian story will slowly become more noticeable and the full story of the presidents will be told.
Baker is the first American Indian superintendent at Mount Rushmore. He faced adversity in other assignments and expects to have some at Mount Rushmore. He sees this assignment as a challenge, which is what drives him.
''There is so much to do here, so much to teach here. And what I want to tell people is that there are many realms and many avenues of interpretation. The one we are focused on is the four presidents, well, that's fine, but that's only one avenue and only one focus,'' Baker said.
The faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are carved on the mountain. It represents the first 150 years of the country's history. But Baker is quick to state that people lived in the Black Hills before it was inhabited by non-Indians, and those stories will be slowly integrated into the interpretive programs.
''We need to keep in mind the natural resources, the people who lived here before, not only the tribes that are here now, but historically.
''I think the only way we can get people to understand what we are fighting for as Indian people is getting them to understand who we were,'' Baker said.
Baker is Hidatsa-Mandan and grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. He was raised within a traditional family, but admits there is still a lot about the traditional way of life he is missing.
Four million people visit Mount Rushmore each year. To some it is a pilgrimage, a patriotic duty, others stop by the memorial to see the carving as art of a monumental undertaking. Soon all will return home with a new or renewed knowledge of the American Indian and of the men on the mountain.
What may be different to the many American Indians who look upon the memorial with disdain is that their ancestors will be mentioned at all. Many Indians in the region do not visit the memorial, but that may change. Baker said he wants to include Indians on the employment roster, to bring the elders, young people and others in to tell the stories and interpret the way of life.
''I grew up in two different worlds I think in a way. And that's what we are trying to do here. We are going to do a lot more as far as the natural resources and I want to do more with partnerships,'' he said.
At a recent gathering of National Park Rangers in the Black Hills, a panel of Lakota was brought in to speak. Baker said Alex White Plume, vice president elect of the Oglala Sioux Tribe said the faces on Mount Rushmore should be covered over. That is a frequent comment among the tribes of South Dakota.
Baker said that wasn't going to happen, nor is he capable of giving the land back to the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Shoshone or Kiowa that once inhabited the region.
''Whether we know it, or like it or not, this is part of our history and I think we can't shy away from that. We need to meet it head on, meaning that we need to educate people. And so, being the first Indian here, I am very proud of that,'' he said.
''Simply because we don't like the place because of what it represents is only one small element. We should be there to educate people. We should educate people not only on how we lived, but on more challenging aspects of the treaties and treaty violations.''
New trails would provide the visitor a close-up view of the 1,000-acre park. Visitors will be treated to exotic plants and the only old growth pine forest left in the Black Hills. And while on the trails, visitors will be treated to American Indian stories and other experiences like hide tanning, he said.
To support his claim that American Indian stories and history will work at Mount Rushmore, Baker spoke of a group of young people from a Rapid City school who came to the memorial, put up tipis and sat on stage in front of 1,000 visitors and told stories.
''I was so proud of them. It was amazing. And what I saw in the faces of the visitors - they are hungry for that,'' he said.
Baker worked for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission on behalf of the National Park Service. He said he got in trouble a lot. ''Get it off your chest and then we can talk business,'' he said.
Baker spoke of this new plan for the memorial with a passion and exhilarating pace reserved for much younger people that can disarm anyone and turn a disbeliever into a strong advocate for his vision. It is not just talk.
Baker is the superintendent that overcame some harsh criticism over the development of the American Indian memorial at the Little Big Horn site. He was criticized strongly by Custer buffs and also by many American Indian tribes.
''I'm going to try to bring in groups with partnerships. There are all kinds of ways to express yourself and what I am looking for here is the most positive way.
''When the western expansion started it was manifest destiny. Well, it was a land rush ... there is no soft way to put that, it was a land grab and so if you portray your accurate history and keep your emotions down as an interpreter and if the groups gets really mad or sad, that's up to them.''
Baker's goal is to create a cultural exchange among the millions of visitors that visit the memorial. ''If we could educate one of them that would be great ... and understand why we are upset with the treaties, why the tribes want the sacred land back.''
Support from the top
Baker said he is backed by the National Park Service.
''I'm starting to see a real positive change in the government. A lot of people won't see it, but the government is, I think anyway, is starting to change one step at a time. Twenty-seven years ago when I came to the park service we didn't do hardly anything to understand tribes and there were a lot of bad feelings.
''Now people are really trying. We have a ways to go obviously, but the acceptance is there, the support is there,'' he said.
He also puts a challenge to the tribes to give the government agencies a chance.
''From a human standpoint changes are extremely slow and because of our laws and policies it looks like we are not doing anything, but we can ease up on our policies and we can do it differently.''
Baker is first and foremost the superintendent at Mount Rushmore, but he said he was hopeful that he could help tribes develop and create a tourism economy. Tourism in South Dakota is the number two industry.
''If the tribes can use us to do that, I would love to have them use us so they could set their own tours and own programs in their own arenas.''
Baker never completes a thought without mentioning education - of the tribes, non-Indians and all visitors. He said he visits Wounded Knee, some 90 minutes from Mount Rushmore, on a regular basis and he sees opportunity to not just capture tourist dollars, but to also educate the public.
''I'm excited about this place, excited about the opportunity to learn and teach and get people to sit down at one table and deal with us as human beings. There are things I can do to make it better I believe. Another year and we will see what happens.''
Baker is one of three American Indian superintendents at national parks, his son Page Baker is superintendent at Casa Grande Monument and Darrel Cook, Lakota, is superintendent at the Little Big Horn Battlefield.
He said he hopes that someday all the parks will be managed by American Indians; after all the land was once inhabited by their ancestors and many of the parks contain sacred sites.