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Mount Rushmore Mostly Cool, Says NPS Visitor Survey; What About the Lakota?

The Rapid City Journal notices the National Park Service's survey of visitors to Mount Rushmore and finds confirmation of what we South Dakotans know quite well: while we have minor complaints about parking fees and "Made in China" trinkets, Mount Rushmore is pretty cool.

The survey itself offers a number of interesting observations about South Dakota's most famous monument. Conducted during the first week of summer in 2013, the on-site survey got 782 responses. 61% of those respondents said they were visiting Mount Rushmore for the first time. That's half the fun for us 39-percenters who go back to see the monument again: we are surrounded by people who are seeing something remarkable for the first time. We return visitors have more time to turn and face south up the Avenue of Flags or on the grand viewing terrace and look at all those other faces gazing toward the mountaintop.

Those other faces we see at Mount Rushmore are to some extent a wide sample of America. In just seven days, the surveyors caught visitors from 49 states. For us South Dakotans, Mount Rushmore offers a unique chance to be surrounded by people we don't know:

Mount Rushmore: U.S. Visitors by State. Littlejohn, M. and Y. Le. 2014. Mount Rushmore National Memorial visitor study: Summer 2013. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2014/785. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.
Littlejohn, M. and Y. Le. 2014. Mount Rushmore National Memorial visitor study: Summer 2013. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2014/785. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

When I go to Mount Rushmore, only 1 in 25 of the people around me is from South Dakota. That chance to see a whole bunch of America is worth a field trip for the school kids right there.

But remind the kids that they aren't seeing the most accurate cross-section of America. In the center of a nation that's 78% white, 17% Hispanic, and 13% black, the June 21–27 survey found visitors were 93% white, 3% Asian, and 1% black. In a state that's 9% American Indian, and in a national forest of great spiritual significance to our Lakota neighbors, the survey found just 1% of visitors were Indians.

The latter should not surprise: if someone farted in my church, I'd probably sit in a different pew, too. The Mount Rushmore survey doesn't say much about the inherent cultural tension of four pale faces blasted into a stony temple stolen in conquest from a darker people. Three respondents mention that they were disappointed to find Heritage Village, the tipi cluster along the trail near the base of the mountain, closed. One respondent wishes that "Native Americans were more a part of the memorial." Another drops the white-imperialism bomb:

We found it to be underwhelming, and a surprisingly good indicator of why the Native Americans were, have been, and remain against this type of colonialism. White supremacy. We were far more intrigued by the nature than by this giant, clearly out of place, white rock with heads of dead white guys in the middle of the Black Hills [visitor comment, Margaret Littlejohn and Yen Le, Mount Rushmore National Memorial visitor study: Summer 2013, Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2014/785, National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado, March 2014, p. 99.].

Maybe if there's a good side to this cultural tension, Mount Rushmore generates strong tourism synergy with that other big Black Hills rock project. Two thirds of the Mount Rushmore visitors surveyed said their trip itinerary included the Crazy Horse Memorial. That even larger rock refacement is fraught with its own cultural tensions, but at least the two stone monuments are boosting each other's visitor numbers and perhaps inspiring more Americans to cultural introspection through comparative grandiose sculpturology.


  1. larry kurtz 2014.03.30

    Shrine of Hypocritheocrisy.

  2. Jessie 2014.03.30

    As a former geologist, I find both "monuments" highly objectionable. The mountains were beautiful before humans started messing with them.

    Expressing this idea to people who live in this state usually gets me a dropped jaw followed by sputtering about history, patriotism, tourist dollars and equal oppportunity for Native Americans.

    By adding faces to the rocks, we have actually defaced them. This isn't a political or social view, just a geologist's view.

  3. larry kurtz 2014.03.30

    Residents from those top five states are SD's largest inbound demographic buying real estate in a chemical toilet.

  4. larry kurtz 2014.03.30

    Rebumblicans all.

  5. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.04.01

    I've seen Rushmore many times, and I don't recall my first sight. I was quite young. I do remember my first glimpse of Crazy Horse. It's so big!

    I showed Rushmore to grad school classmates from Norway. They asked me about the ecological aspect. At that time, in the late 90s, I said that if someone proposed a similar plan, I'd oppose it. However . . .

    In the 1930s it was a very different situation. We all know about the economics and the drought and the terrible struggles people had to survive. Great monuments were a very popular thing coming off the Roaring 20s, and nature's limits were not on the popular radar.

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