The president’s visit is being met with alarm, not only because of the potential for a forest fire posed by the extravaganza, but because the event itself will assemble 7,500 people without requiring masks or social distancing in the middle of a pandemic. What’s more, the monument, built on stolen Native American land, is drawing criticism for its racist origins.
One decade after being outlawed for environmental reasons, fireworks have returned to Mount Rushmore to celebrate Independence Day in the U.S. And with a very special guest: the American president, Donald Trump, who in the past has said that he’d like to see his own face sculpted alongside those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
The return of fireworks, forbidden in 2009 by the Barack Obama administration, was not the only controversy surrounding Trump’s visit to the South Dakota memorial this Friday night. It will be the night before Fourth of July festivities to be held with pomp and circumstance this Saturday in Washington.
At the event on Friday, to be preceded by a speech by the president, there will be 7,500 people in attendance, each of whom paid $1 to enter a raffle held by South Dakota’s tourism office. Those in attendance will not have to practice social distancing nor will they be required to wear masks, despite the coronavirus pandemic, which is still raging.
What’s more, the monument was built on Native American land, and there is a history of criticism over this fact. Furthermore, the accusations against sculptor Gutzon Borglum, director of the project that began in 1927, have grown louder as a part of the larger movement against statues considered to be racist.
At a rally in 2017, Trump suggested that his face should be included on Mount Rushmore, warning his supporters that the media would interpret such a suggestion as egotistical. The proposal was that every president would be included on the monument. Park officials, however, have already declared that there isn’t room for anyone else.
During an interview in 2018, then governor and later Rep. Kristi Noem, said that the president had also spoken with her about his idea, and that he wasn’t kidding. Noem said that Trump had told her, “Do you know it’s my dream to have my face on Mount Rushmore?”
She said that she had started to laugh, but he had not.
The annual fireworks show took place for the first time in 1998 and ran until 2009, when the Obama administration outlawed them for environmental reasons. First among the reasons was the risk of forest fire. A 2017 study by the National Park Service cited by The Washington Post concluded that at least 27 forest fires were started during Independence Day celebrations between 1999 and 2007.
The Black Hills area, site of Mount Rushmore, could be at high risk for fires in July; despite precautions taken, forest fires have nevertheless occurred. Although the monument itself is made of limestone, it is surrounded by pine forests and the area is moderately dry.
The same study found that the park can hold a maximum of 8,000 people — an average of 34,000 visit each day — and that the annual event was gaining in popularity, generating so much enthusiasm that it would be sold out by the morning of the event. Attendees jockeyed for the best seats to watch the show, while many were turned away. There is a single access road, which, given the heavy traffic, made it difficult for firefighters to reach a fire. And for two years, at least, that access was cut off by fires, leaving the park without an escape route.
But, fire danger aside, the study found another issue: a heightened level of perchlorate in the soil and water. Perchlorate is a compound commonly used in fireworks, pointing to firework shows as the source of the chemical found in the park. Water measurements taken between 2011 and 2015 showed levels exceeding a safe level. Perchlorate can interfere with the thyroid’s ability to absorb iodine.
In January, President Trump recounted a conversation he had with Gov. Noem who was elected in 2019 after eight years in the House of Representatives. During a phone call made just after he took office, the Republican governor asked the president if he thought he could bring the fireworks back. Trump questioned why they had been stopped in the first place. “Environmental reasons,” responded Noem, to which the president asked, “What can burn? It’s stone.”
Within 15 minutes he had called the people responsible and resolved the situation;. However, according to NPR, it wasn’t until a month later that officials began assessing the situation., at which time, Trump tweeted he was “pleased” to announce that “BIG FIREWORKS” would return in 2020. Officials did not determine until the end of last April that there would be no significant environmental impact and the event could take place.
A controlled burn was conducted on April 29 near Mount Rushmore in an attempt to reduce the flammability of the terrain before the fireworks show. A final decision about whether conditions will be right for a fireworks show will not be made until Friday; there’s a 20% chance of rain before midnight.
The fireworks show, alone, which will last 18 minutes and include music and a tribute to health workers, will cost the state $350,000, not counting the cost of security and other similar expenses.
“We’re going to have a large event at July 3. We told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home, but those who want to come and join us, we’ll be giving out free face masks, if they choose to wear one. But we will not be social distancing.”
This was the governor’s response on Fox News to objections from those who see risk in an event of this kind in the middle of a pandemic.
On Wednesday, state health officials announced the death of two more people from COVID-19 in South Dakota, bringing the total number of deaths since the start of the pandemic to 93 — a small number compared to the more than 130,000 total deaths throughout the U.S. That same day, 62 new cases were registered on top of the 6,826 cases already accounted for in the state. (There are 2.74 million total cases in the country.) There are currently around 800 active cases, including 65 hospitalizations.
But critics of the event believe that an assembly of 7,500 people at Mount Rushmore could spark an increase of cases in that state, as well as in others.
In addition to those who managed to get a ticket (some will stay in an amphitheater area, while others will have to bring their own chairs to stay in a graveled area), it is expected that the event will attract more people to the park vicinity.
A second event with fireworks — the largest in the past few years — to celebrate Independence Day will take place on July 4, in Washington, D.C. Plans are to distribute up to 300,000 masks for those who want to use them, although they won’t be mandatory. Washington, D.C.’s Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser does not have the power to prevent the celebration, because it will take place on federal land. Nevertheless, she has asked residents to celebrate close to home.
The event will include a flyover by Air Force jets, but will fall far short of the military parade that Trump demanded, like the one last year that cost three times as much as typical Independence Day celebrations.
Several groups of Native Americans are planning to protest this Friday in the area around Mount Rushmore. These actions are meant to show discontent with the president’s policies, in light of the monument’s having been built on land that is considered sacred to Native Americans.
Local leaders are worried. “Trump coming here is a safety concern not just for my people inside and outside the reservation, but for people in the Great Plains. We have such limited resources in Black Hills, and we’re already seeing infections rising,” said the leader of the Oglala Sioux, Julian Bear Runner, in an interview with The Guardian. He said that people cannot be prevented from exercising their right to protest.
The Oglala Sioux leader also asserts that Trump should have asked permission from the seven Sioux governments before making his visit. “The lands on which that mountain is carved and the lands he’s about to visit belong to the Great Sioux nation under a treaty signed in 1851 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and I have to tell him he doesn’t have permission from its original sovereign owners to enter the territory at this time,” he added.
According to that newspaper, the discovery of gold in the region in the 1870s led the federal government to force the Sioux to give up part of their reserve, where the Black Hills are located. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the land had been taken illegally.
The last president to visit Mount Rushmore was George W. Bush, in 2002.
A Racist Sculpture?
Some activists believe that the faces of the four former U.S. presidents carved into the mountain are just as offensive as the statues of Spanish conquerors or leaders of the Confederacy, which have been toppled or vandalized in several American cities. For many years, activists have demanded that the sculpted faces, each more than 18 meters (59 feet) across, also be removed.
The original idea for the sculpture came from Doane Robinson. Robinson, a historian in the 1920s who was looking for ideas to attract tourists to South Dakota, proposed a monument to honor great figures from the American West, such as the explorers Lewis and Clark or Red Cloud, the leader of the Oglala Lakota who fought the U.S. Army and signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie.
But the sculptor who was chosen for the project, Gutzon Borglum, instead opted to depict four ex-presidents. Borglum’s past is also scrutinized by critics of the monument, reports The New York Times in an article about Mount Rushmore.
Before the project in South Dakota, Borglum was involved in Stone Mountain in Georgia, where the largest bas-relief in the world was sculpted. It depicts three icons of the Confederacy, proponents of slavery during the Civil War: the president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, and Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. They are shown sitting astride their favorite horses: Blackjack, Traveller and Little Sorrel. This project was closely linked to the Ku Klux Klan, which Borglum supported. Klan meetings helped to raise funds for Borglum’s project in Georgia, which wasn’t completed until the 1970s. The entire park, which officially opened in 1965, is a tribute to the 13 states that were part of the Confederacy. According to historians, Borglum, besides being a white supremacist, also held anti-Semitic beliefs.
Mount Rushmore was officially so christened in 1930 to honor businessman Charles E. Rushmore, who donated money for the construction of the monument. The Sioux knew it as Six Grandparents or Cougar Mountain. Construction was begun in 1927 and took 14 years to complete. It was Borglum’s son, Lincoln, who would eventually finish the job.
In addition to the sculptor’s racist views, the presidents whose faces appear on Mount Rushmore also have complicated legacies: Both Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. Roosevelt expelled the American Indians from their lands and tried to convert them to Christianity. Lincoln may have signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but he has been criticized for his response to the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, in which 300 Native Americans were sentenced to death. The president reduced the number of condemned Native Americans to 38, who were then hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S. history, according to the same article in The New York Times.
Statues of Roosevelt and Lincoln have already been taken down in some Northern cities as a part of racial protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer. The statues were removed not so much for their history as for how they are represented: Roosevelt’s statue in New York has him sitting atop a horse with a Black man and a Native American man at his sides, while the Lincoln statue in Boston shows him with a freed slave kneeling before him.
Trump recently signed an executive order that protects statues, mandating that protestors responsible for vandalizing statues could be arrested and subjected to long prison terms.