‘Shrine of Democracy’ in the ‘Sacred Land of Heroes’

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MOUNT RUSHMORE, South Dakota—Daily, but particularly in summer when South Dakota’s sun is nearly unforgiving, local and foreign tourists visit the historic “Shrine of Democracy” brought to life in the Museum and Gallery here.

The Museum and Gallery showcases scores of paintings, sculptures, and work models of Gutzon Borglum, son of Danish immigrants, who dreamed and conceived in 1924 the monument at Mount Rushmore in Keystone near the Black Hills.

The Shrine traces the country’s history by way of its leaders, from its birth (George Washington) through its early growth (Thomas Jefferson), preservation (Abraham Lincoln) and later development (Theodore Roosevelt).

Seventeen years later, Rushmore was transformed, with four enormous faces, six stories high, peering literally into the Black Hills.

But the monument was seen as an insult to the native peoples—the Lakota Sioux—who had considered the Black Hills of South Dakota sacred for millennia, which makes the land today, because of what some historians call “the passions of a few artists, hallowed in a different way.”

Mount Rushmore’s hometown Keystone was founded in 1891 with the discovery of gold-bearing quartz at the present site of the Keystone Mine, and the town “boomed” three years later with the discovery of a large gold vein a few hundred yards away from the Keystone Mine.

Visitors—many from other states of the United States as well as foreigners from Europe and Asia, including families of Filipinos, Japanese, South Koreans and Chinese—walk along the Avenue of Flags as they inch closer to the viewing deck for a closer view of the Rushmore monuments, described by Borglum himself as “colossal, in keeping with America’s achievements.”

HERITAGE SYMBOL. The 6-story Presidents monument at Mount Rushmore, sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, traces the history of the United States by way of its leaders. 

The flags, seen by officials as powerful symbols to remind Americans of their common heritage, history, and ideals, represent the 50 states, one district, three territories and two commonwealths of the country.

The flags—the Avenue of Flags was initially established as part of the celebration of America’s Bicentennial at the request of an unidentified visitor—are arranged in alphabetical order with the A’s on the walkway near the concession building and the W’s near the Visitor Center/Museum, with park rangers discreetly visible nearby to give assistance.

At the Museum, visitors get the full Rushmore experience, with a film view of the 60-year-old Borglum and his crew—whose names are etched in stone at the Avenue of Flags—work on the face of the monuments in bosun’s chairs hung from thin cables.

“Truly, an entertaining, exciting, and most informative tour for the whole family,” one Asian visitor was overheard as whispering while walking closer to the viewing deck, which could be further enriched with a lengthy presidential trail at the foot of the imposing cliffs and rocks were it not for the searing heat—nearly 26 degrees Celsius—and the long trail.

Repeat visitor Harmony Quinto, who traveled seven hours by road all the way from Colorado via Wyoming, suggested to her Filipino friends on the same road trip to have a taste of the “Jefferson ice cream”—so called because the first brand came from suggested ingredients of the former President—near the Avenue of the flags to beat the heat.

At the Gallery, visitors discover what motivated Borglum to conceive the monument and pursue the dream at age 60 that men half his age would not attempt.

An 1868 treaty deeded the Black Hills land to the Sioux “in perpetuity” but when gold was discovered six years on, the United States reclaimed it.

Historians say in 1876, when all Lakota bands were ordered onto reservations, the great chiefs Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Gall organized a resistance that destroyed the Seventh Calvary against Gen. George Custer’s Last Stand, at the Little Bighorn.

The  flags at the Avenue of Flags remind Americans of their common heritage, history, and ideals.

But in less than two years Crazy Horse was dead, and the Sioux’s fate was sealed.

In 1939, historical records suggest the Sioux invited Boston-born sculptor Korezak Ziolkowski to carve the image of their own hero, Crazy Horse, into a Black Hills mountain 27 kilometers southwest of Rushmore.

Unlike the Mount Rushmore monument, Crazy Horse would be sculpted in the round: the great chief, in the saddle of a horse, his arm outstretched.

The memorial would also dwarf Rushmore at 563 feet high and 641 feet long, making it the largest monument on earth.

Ziolkowski died in 1982, and historians have found it impossible to predict a completion timeline but the project’s motto of “never forget your dreams” continues. 

But there are other things that rock in the Black Hills, as visitors, with passion for adventure, would discover.

The locals divide South Dakota geographically, even culturally, into “East River” and “West River” and the geographical differences could not be more profound and visible to even the eye of a first-time visitor. 

Scientists have variously described the Black Hills as “the oldest mountain range on the continent,” “a mountain range, separate and distinct,” or “containing the highest point between the Rockies and the Pyrenees.

Geologist Jack Redden, who mapped the entire Black Hills, characterized it as “a geological dome on the front range of the Rockies.”

Whatever, officials say over eons of time, winds and water have eroded the Hills—“from the high rugged spires of the center stretching out to the Badlands and prairies of the High Plains, exposing multiple layers to create a great museum of geological time.”

The Black Hills has also been said to contain “the richest 160 kilometers of gold on Earth.”

Rock hounds go to the area to explore or stake mining claims on more than 250 species of minerals and precious metals.

Rugged geological outcroppings, myriad mineral deposits and rock beds can be found, according to officials, throughout the area.

Quartz, copper, silver, lead, mica, feldspar and several other minerals glitter along the snaking roadside in beautiful and fascinating formations.

Loosely translated in white culture as “Black Hills,” the ancient mountain range called “Paha Sapa” by the Lakota people who consider it sacred land, was formed, according to geologists, in sedimentary layers in an inland sea some 65 million years ago.

Dinosaurs roamed until molten granite intrusions forced their way upward to form the peaks at the center of what is now Black Hills.

Volcanic activity forced the layers of the earth upward and outward and, with time and erosion, they formed concentric geological circles that, when viewed from above, resemble an oblong target with distinct rings.

Whatever people have said of Keystone, Black Hills and Mount Rushmore and the carefully sculpted monument on white rocks caressed several thousand feet high by the South Dakota winds, the inky shade of Ponderosa pines, the lush green of the forests, through grays and deep reds of the inner circles of shale to the pale beige of the rocky and dry sandstone cliffs, any visit here is, like some Asians have said, “worth a lifetime.”

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