When Greenpeace invaded the hallowed grounds of Mount Rushmore, many of the locals started looking for a scapegoat. They found an Indian who, according to their theorizing, was ready made.
Gerard Baker is a tall man of the Mandan-Hidatsa Tribe of North Dakota. His gray braids hang lightly on across his shoulders and he has a ready smile. Last week, as I sat in his office, I watched his mostly white staff buzz around him with obvious affection.
Baker grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation and spent his youth working on his family ranch, breaking horses, herding cows and listening to the stories of the tribal elders. He got his Native education in those early days hearing the stories of tribal warfare, great hunts, the tricksters so common in Indian legends, and about how his people survived the onslaught of the white settlers.
He never forgot his Native roots and when he began working for the National Park Service and moved from Knife River Indian Villages, Fort Union Trading Post, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unite and then to the Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, he read and learned about the history of the places he was stationed and tried to introduce pieces of the Native culture at every stop.
He finally landed in the job as Superintendent of the Mount Rushmore National Monument, a job that has now immersed him in a controversy not of his making. Perhaps it is because he has introduced Native cultural and traditional stories and people that has, for the first time in the history of the Monument, become a part of the daily activities at Mount Rushmore. Some of the locals find it to be reprehensible and a scourge upon the Monument’s original intent.
When Greenpeace did its deed the locals came out of the woodwork looking for a scalp to hang on the wall. Baker’s scalp looked pretty inviting to those wanting to see blood.
In my mind, Gerard Baker did things to shake up the status quo. He introduced Indian culture, history and thought to a park that had long been dominated with nothing but the residue of the dominant culture. He soon discovered that the white people here hated the change especially because it seemed to elevate Native culture to an equal level with the white culture. After bearing the brunt of negative comments Baker said, “We’re promoting all cultures of America. That’s what this place is. This is Mount Rushmore. It’s America. Everybody’s something different here; we’re all different. And just maybe that gets us talking again as human beings, as Americans.”
Of the controversy, U. S. Senator Tim Johnson said, “While I am still waiting to see the full report on this incident, Gerard Baker has always been extremely professional in his role as superintendent. His efforts to expand programming at the park by incorporating local history has only enhanced the experience visitors get at Mount Rushmore. As National Park Service examines the steps needed to protect Mt. Rushmore in the future, we should not lose sight of his accomplishments or those of his staff.”
Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin said, “Throughout his tenure as superintendent of Mount Rushmore, Gerard Baker has been a strong leader who has demonstrated commitment to the memorial and an innovative to multicultural outreach. Without more details about the investigation of the Greenpeace incident, I think it’s premature to judge his responsibility as superintendent and his capacity to continue serving in his current role.”
To the credit of Rapid City, many of the prominent citizens have come to the aid of Baker. John Brockelsby, former head of the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce and a highly successful businessman, publicly castigated those seeking the head of Baker reminding them that Baker is well-respected not only by his staff, but by many merchants and citizens of the community.
The controversy started when Baker said that all systems at the park functioned as they were supposed to prior to and during the Greenpeace invasion. He said this immediately after the incident and he did not have knowledge that some of the systems, particularly the cameras, had failed. How was he to know that when it took an investigation to discover this fact? Perhaps he spoke too quickly, but that is the style of Mr. Baker. He is not a man to hesitate or to pull punches.
In my mind, he is doing one of best jobs at Mount Rushmore that has ever been done by any prior superintendent and his efforts to introduce the Native culture to the visitors has never seen such popularity. Tourists come to South Dakota to see Indians and now they can visit the Shrine of Democracy and really see a true, diverse, and Democratic America.
As Gerard Baker continues to say, “That is what America is all about.”
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the
founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the
1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with
the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of
Fame in 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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