Environment | National

Native Sun News: Gerard Baker leaves behind a strong legacy

The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy. All content © Native Sun News.

MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL –– Heritage Village is a remembrance of and a tribute to a way of life long ago usurped by “Western civilization.”

Former park superintendent Gerard Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa originally from Mandaree, N.D. on the Fort Berthold reservation, envisioned and brought to fruition Heritage Village during his over 30-year quest to incorporate noticeably absent Native American themes and elements into America’s national parks.

Upon appointment as superintendent in 2004, Baker committed himself to opening up more cultural “avenues of interpretation” at Mount Rushmore and said that the omnipresent sculpture of four memorialized presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – is “only one avenue and one focus” of the park.

As told to documentarian Ken Burns for his 2009 PBS film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” Baker was initially apprehensive when offered the superintendency.

“It was very challenging to accept the job here, because growing up I understood what Mount Rushmore meant,” he said. “And for us, for Indian people, it doesn’t mean ‘Success of America.’ It means the desecration of the sacred Black Hills; it means the losing of the Black Hills to the United States government, to white people that came in and shoved everybody out of here and put us on a reservation. So it meant a lot of negative things.”

“When I first came here, I’d go out in the park and I would watch people,” said Baker. “They would look at those four presidents and they’d get teary-eyed. This place draws emotion. And it should. But again, we were only telling half the story,” he said.

Baker began his introduction of local Native American culture by erecting one tipi, simply to remind visitors of the ancient and ongoing presence of Natives in the Hills.

“I remember one day I went out there and there were like 20, 30 people gathered. And so I said, ‘What the heck, I’ll just start talking about this.’ So I started, and when I got through, there were about 200 people there.”

The inclusion of a Native American interpretive program at the monument site was met with incredulity and outrage by some local white citizens. Baker was openly criticized by this constituency for his decision to incorporate the Native aspect.

“We have stories that are very hard to tell; we have stories that are very hard to listen to,” he said. “Primarily, the reactions have been very positive but there are always those few that condemn; they didn’t want to hear about the American Indian plight, or they don’t want to hear about the breaking of treaties. Because it happened a long time ago, it doesn’t affect us today. And I believe it still affects us today.”

Baker did an extensive interview for a documentary about the National Parks. The exhibit, opened in 2008 and invitingly situated near the base of the “Shrine of Democracy,” provides a recountal of facets of the once glorious existence of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples through modern-day interpretations by Native American National Park Service seasonal rangers.

“It is important to tell and to talk about the lifeways of these people,” said Blaine Kortemeyer, deputy director of interpretation and education for the Memorial.

The interfacial, hands-on educational display, which also provides a stunning, albeit distanced, view of Harney Peak as well as a vertigo-inducing view from below of the stoic granite countenance of Washington, is open to the public annually from approximately mid-May through mid-September.

Heritage Village has also served to attract more Native visitors to the Memorial. “We do get more Native American visitors now,” Kortemeyer said. “I have seen the increase in the 11 years that I’ve been here.”

In all, there are around 3 million local, national and international visitors to the park each year, according to Kortemeyer.

In July of 2009, Baker also took heat for the Greenpeace security breach at Mount Rushmore. The environmentalist group managed to stage a widely publicized protest atop the monument due, in part, to the park having “no formal standards or procedures for ensuring adequate and effective mountain patrols” in place at the time, according to the official Government Accountability Office report.

Security system failure was also to blame for the incident. Many believe that Baker was scapegoated simply because he is Native American.

But Baker was no stranger to controversy. He had previously served as superintendent at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument near Crow Agency, Mont. following the park’s name change from Custer Battlefield. He recruited and attracted many Native Americans as participants in the annual battle commemoration ceremony, as seasonal rangers in the park’s interpretive program and as visitors.

In 1998, amidst death threats from detractors and praise from his NPS supervisors, Baker left the Little Bighorn site.

Baker remained at Rushmore through April of 2010, when he was named assistant director for American Indian relations for the NPS division of the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.

Due to health concerns, however, Baker opted to resign from the NPS in July of 2010, less than three months after his D.C. appointment by Director Jonathan Jarvis. Both a stroke suffered in November of 2009 and an increased workload as the American Indian relations assistant director led him to make the decision to resign.

But the legacy of his six-year tenure in the form of Heritage Village and other Native American cultural events and programs at the memorial will continue, according to Kortemeyer. “Superintendent Baker was a good guy to work with,” he said.

After the full-fledged introduction of Heritage Village, Baker said, in “The National Parks,” “What we’re doing now is we’re telling all the story. But the challenge is: I don’t want to make those four (presidents) look bad, but I want to be real. How do you tell the real story? Well, the way you tell it is: You tell it,” he said.

Mount Rushmore is situated in the heart of the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, an area long held sacred by the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes who once had free range of the region.

Following the Black Hills Gold Rush in 1874 and a series of U.S. military campaigns from 1876 to 1877, including the famed Battle of Little Big Horn, the federal government seized control of the Black Hills, in direct violation of the legally binding Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The unlawful takeover was not only an unabashed exertion of greed and power by the U.S., but also a probable retaliatory measure for Indian resistance – primarily led by Sitting Bull, or Tatanka Iyotanka, Hunkpapa, and Crazy Horse, or Tasunke Witko, Oglala – to white encroachment.

The federally drafted Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 guaranteed ownership of the hallowed Black Hills by the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations in perpetuity.

But by the end of 1877, the Indian peoples who fought so valiantly to retain the last vestige of their once widespread homelands had all but surrendered to the juggernaut that was the federal government. The Black Hills had been lost to them forever and never again would their lives be the same.

“Coming here was a challenge in that Mount Rushmore’s enabling legislation has us only tell the first centuries of America and these four presidents,” said Baker of his acceptance of the memorial’s top position.

“And this is a challenge for me because I believe that we should go back before that time. I want to show what life was like before George Custer found gold in the Black Hills, before (Gutzon) Borglum came in and started carving the sculptures here,” he said.

Over a century after the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples had been effectively impoverished and placed under federal control on desolate reservations; a monumental victory in federal court was secured. On June 30, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an award of $15.5 million for the market value of the Black Hills in 1877, along with 103 years’ worth of interest at five percent for an additional $105 million.

At the time, a majority of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribal members refused to accept the settlement and instead demanded the return of the Black Hills from the U.S.

The Black Hills Land Claim, as it is formally referred to, is still in dispute today. The large, rocky outcropping that became Mount Rushmore, following Borglum’s commitment to the carving, was originally referred to as “The Six Grandfathers,” or “Tunkasila Sakpe,” by the Native peoples who first inhabited the area. The term is a spiritual denotation of the earth, the sky and the four directions.

At the time of Borglum’s work on the monument, he was alleged to be a member of the nationalist, white supremacist organization, The Ku Klux Klan, though he later publicly repudiated such claims. His denial of involvement with The Klan might have been more of a political ploy than a personally sincere gesture, however.

Even the four presidents who have been venerated on the granite mountainside are historically known to have despised Indians and worked against them in the government’s relentless pursuit of “Manifest Destiny.” Manifest Destiny was the idea that it was the destiny of the U.S. to expand its territory over the whole of North America and to extend and enhance its political, social and economic influences.

For many American Indians, the carvings on Mount Rushmore have come to epitomize the loss of their sacred lands and the injustices suffered under the U.S. government.

In the summer of 1970, members of the American Indian Movement mounted a siege of the memorial, occupying the ledge above the presidents’ heads for nearly a month. Although such protests are not as common today, Rushmore is still a focal point for Indian protest and contempt.

Since Baker’s departure from Mount Rushmore, the current administration has strived to continue his vision. A Native American cultural education program has been established by the NPS in collaboration with the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce, said Kortemeyer. The program incorporates cultural awareness training for NPS employees not only at Mount Rushmore but across the region as well during regular seasonal training in the spring, he said.

Through the cultural education program, the PRACC provides both historical and contemporary information on the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples of the area and emphasizes, again, “how their lifeways are…important to tell and talk about,” Kortemeyer said. “They help us learn what it is we can say about the Lakota people and how we can help them out.”

Such endeavors – developed as a result of Baker’s influence – are helping to provide relevance and meaning for a larger share of Native American patrons at the monument.

“Gerard Baker is one of the most personable and courageous Native Americans I have ever known,” said Tim Giago, former publisher of several Indian newspapers. “When I was trying to get Gov. Rounds to proclaim 2010 as the Year of Unity, the man that sat next to me and helped lead the charge was Gerard Baker. He took the time out of his busy schedule to drive me to Pierre to visit with the governor. I am so glad to see that his efforts, that caused him so much anguish, have not died because so many of us, Natives and non-Natives, are so very proud of him.”

The park also includes more local Native American artists, from dancers to musicians to storytellers, in its summer season events repertoire, according to Kortemeyer.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial represents many different ideas for many different individuals. For some, the monument is tantamount to the principals of freedom, democracy and enterprise. For others, thoughts of unjustified and unnecessary ethnic superiority, desecration and loss come to mind in seeing the monument.

Prior to leaving Rushmore, Baker expanded his vision to embrace not just Native stories and traditions but the vast diversity of cultural stories and traditions that make up the country’s national heritage. “It’s not just a tipi here,” he said. “We’re promoting all cultures of America…. That’s what this place is. For goodness sake, this is Mount Rushmore. It’s America.”

(Contact Jesse Abernathy at staffwriter@nsweekly.com)

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