A Meme About Mount Rushmore’s Racist Past Went Viral. Here’s What We Know.

The meme, which even claimed KKK ties to the beloved monument, took off amid anti-racism protests in the U.S. in the summer of 2020.

  • Published 29 July 2020

As the United States reckoned with its racist past in 2020, Snopes continued to investigate the histories of monuments across the country. Amid nationwide protests after the May 25, 2020, killing of a Black man, George Floyd, in the custody of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Confederate monuments were taken down by demonstrators, and communities began to reassess their troubling histories.

Arguably one of the most iconic U.S. monuments, considered a symbol of American patriotism, is the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which became the subject of controversy after U.S. President Donald Trump spoke there on the Fourth of July. Hours before Trump’s speech, in which he condemned the removal of national monuments, Native American protesters gathered on the road leading to the memorial, calling it a symbol of white supremacy placed on their stolen land.

Snopes users asked us to investigate a meme that began circulating on Facebook in July 2020 that addressed the Native American history of the land the monument is located on, as well as its ties to the white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

We found the monument had a dark history of ties to the KKK, an illegal war, and the violent suppression of the Native American Lakota (also known as Sioux) people. We looked at each claim in the meme, starting with the history of the region before Mount Rushmore was built, followed by an investigation into its creation and alleged KKK funding.

What is the Mountain’s Significance for Native Americans?

Mount Rushmore is part of the Black Hills mountain range in South Dakota. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum started work on the monument in 1927 and completed it in 1941. The structure shows the faces of American presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt. But before their faces were carved there, the mountain was called Six Grandfathers. American Indian Studies Associate Professor David Martinez of Arizona State University described the area as “indisputably sacred to the Lakota and a number of other indigenous nations.” 

We found references to the mountain’s original name in a 2016 study conducted by experts contracted by the National Park Service in conjunction with Lakota scholars. Victor Douville, history and culture coordinator in the Lakota Studies Department in Sinte Gleska University, described the story of the mountain’s naming by Hehaka Sapa, or Black Elk, a medicine man:

Before it was called Six Grandfathers Mountain, it was called Cougar Mountain (Igmu Tanka Paha) because of many cougars or mountain lions living in the vicinity. Then around the early part of 1870, an experience by a Lakota medicine man changed the name to Six Grandfathers because of the six outcrops of the mountain and a dream or a vision.

The Six Grandfathers mountain was considered the heart of what the Lakota call the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, that played a central role in the vision of Black Elk. He was said to have gained entrance to the spirit world, and was granted powers by six grandfathers in order to prepare him for a life of helping his people through coming trials brought by white people.

Douville spoke to Snopes about how the Lakota’s association with the region was older than most people realized: “Our people sat in the Black Hills 3,600 years ago.” Many of them eventually migrated, while some remained. Those who returned in 1776, “re-discovered” the hills, according to Douville.

Douville described how the Lakota also view a section of the Black Hills as the “center of our world,” where they conduct their worship, especially during the summer solstice to “welcome back all life.” It was also a place that sustained life, and a game reserve they tapped in times of hunger. 

The Lakota considered the carving of the four presidents’ faces on what was once Six Grandfathers, a defacement of their sacred site, especially as “those four people had a lot to do with destroying our people’s land base,” Douville said. Indeed, Washington waged war against Native American tribes, Jefferson was considered the architect of policies that would result in the removal of Native Americans from their lands, Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 Dakota Native American rebels, the largest mass execution in American history, and Roosevelt systematically removed Native Americans from their lands. 

How Did the U.S. Government Seize the Land?

In 1868 the U.S. government and the Sioux people signed a treaty, setting aside lands west of the Missouri River for the Lakota and Arapaho tribes. The U.S. guaranteed exclusive tribal occupation of reservation lands, including the Black Hills. The treaty also reserved most of present-day northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana as “unceded Indian territory,” off limits to white people without the Lakotas’ consent. But within nine years of the treaty’s ratification, Congress seized the Black Hills.

How did it start? Like many conflicts, with gold. While most Lakotas settled on reservation lands, a few thousand rejected the 1868 treaty and made homes in unceded territory. They had no quarrel with the “white man” as long as they stayed out of Lakota territory. This changed in 1874 when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his troops discovered gold in the Black Hills. Custer’s official mission, legal under the treaty, was to find a site for an Army post. But in reality he was illegally scouting for resources in the region. 

President Ulysses S. Grant faced increasing pressure to annex the hills, so he convened a secret White House cabal to plan war against the Lakotas. According to documents in the Library of Congress, and numerous experts including History Professor Philip Deloria at Harvard University, the administration launched an illegal war. Grant began with rough diplomacy, pushing Lakota chiefs into a corner in 1875 when they came to the White House to protest shortages of government rations for their people, while miners poured into the hills at the same time.

The meme’s claim that Grant “secretly ordered the Army not to protect local tribes” could be referring to the Army’s halfhearted efforts in stopping prospectors for gold. While the Army initially tried to enforce the 1868 treaty, soldiers eventually “[threw] up their hands” according to John Taliaferro, author of “Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore.”

According to Deloria, “The conflict that followed came about because the government proved unable or unwilling to keep American miners and settlers out of the [Black] Hills.” While Grant wasn’t “secretly” ordering the Army to allow miners in, military personnel appeared to have “a tacit understanding” to no longer interfere, Deloria said. In 1875, Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, one of Grant’s co-conspirators, wrote a confidential order to the commander in Dakota:

… the President decided that while the orders heretofore issued forbidding the occupation of the Black Hills country by miners should not be rescinded, still no fixed resistance by the military should be made to the miners going in ….

In December 1875, non-treaty Native Americans were given an ultimatum to go to the reservations or be forced there by military action, resulting in the Great Sioux War of 1876. 

In September 1876, Lakota elders reluctantly signed the first land-grab agreement to give up all lands outside their immediate reservation, as well as the Black Hills. Even this agreement, according to Taliaferro, was illegitimate. The treaty of 1868 stipulated that ceding any portion of reservation land would be invalid unless “executed and signed by at least three fourths of all the adult male Indians,” according to “Great White Fathers.” The number of signatories of this latest agreement fell far short of that requirement. By 1877 most Native Americans had surrendered or fled to Canada.

In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court, concluding a long-running case brought by the Sioux Nation, confirmed the illegality of the government’s actions, ruling that the Native Americans were entitled to damages for the theft of their land. But Native Americans refused to collect the sum (accruing interest, it now exceeds a billion dollars), saying their land was not for sale. The court remarked on Grant’s “duplicity”:

A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history …

In sum, the U.S. government did seize the land illegally from the Lakota people after the discovery of gold. Grant’s orders to the Army formed an understanding that their soldiers were no longer supposed to enforce rules preventing miners and settlers from entering Lakota territory. While it was not necessarily a “secret,” it did involve duplicitous means that were only acknowledged almost a century later. 

Who Was Behind the Bounty Hunters Killing Native Americans? 

Here the history got murky. The meme claims that Grant ordered the Army to not protect Native Americans as bounty hunters collected money for each Native American killed. As mentioned above, documentation exists of the Army standing back and letting miners and settlers move into the territory. Whether the Army actively allowed independent bounty hunters to operate was another story.

While there were indeed accounts of bounties being offered for Native Americans killed, who was paying these bounties and their timing raised questions from historians. We first encountered this claim in a 2002 issue of Cabinet Magazine, a New York-based publication that stated after Grant ordered the Army to not stop prospectors from entering Black Hills, “Bounty hunters began collecting as much as $300 per Native American killed.” 

Deloria argued it was likely that neither the federal government nor the territorial government based in Yankton, South Dakota, was paying bounties. George Harwood Phillips, a retired professor of history at the University of Colorado, wrote in a paper for the South Dakota Historical Society:

… by 1870 the rush was on in earnest. The first settlers went to Dakota hoping to make their fortunes. They wanted to plat town sites, to organize governments, to build railroads, and to promote immigration. They felt that the presence of the Indians halted progress — and they hated and feared them. To many, the solution was to kill the Indians and dissolve the Indian Bureau. Settlers paid bounties for Indian scalps, fed them poisoned bread, and organized Indian hunting parties.

Settlers were indeed behind payments to bounty hunters for Native American deaths. But Deloria argued that timing was important to the context. At the beginning of the Dakota rush, when settlers tried to make their fortunes, he said, “You could perhaps make the claim … that the Army stood by and watched, or approved, as bounty hunters chased down Indians.” But after the military campaigns of 1877, when the western Lakotas were in bad shape, would have been an easier time for most bounty hunters, Deloria argued: “You’d have to be a pretty brave bounty hunter to head into the Black Hills region looking to kill Indians in the years between 1874 and 1877.”

This is supported by Taliaferro in “Great White Fathers,” who documented an instance after the battles of 1877 of a county placing bounties on Native Americans, as miners began staking claims to search for gold across the Black Hills and remnants of the Lakota resisted them:

The commissioners of newly formed Lawrence County put a bounty of $250 ‘for the body of each and every Indian, killed or captured, dead or alive.’ Setting its own bounty of $50, Deadwood [a town in the county] rationalized that ‘killing Indians was conducive to the health of the community.’

Martinez, who was not aware of cases of civilians being paid bounties by the federal government to kill Native Americans, said, “At the federal level, there really was no reason to pay soldiers bounties for killing Indians. That was their job.” And during the 1870s the Lakota were considered “hostile” if they didn’t comply with the Army, and in those cases soldiers were ordered to treat them as enemies in the field.

In summary, we learned that bounty hunters were paid by settlers to kill Native Americans in the earlier part of the decade before military campaigns began, as well as after they concluded. We found little evidence to back the claim implied in the meme that they were paid or actively supported by the government or the Army at the height of tensions from 1874 to 1877, a period when the Army was tacitly allowing miners to come into the territory.

What Role Did the KKK Play in the Creation of Mount Rushmore?

The man behind the mount, Borglum, had an old relationship with the KKK, preceding his time as the designer and sculptor of Mount Rushmore. In 1914, the United Daughters of the Confederacy — an organization known today for stopping the removal of Confederate monuments — approached him to create a “shrine to the South” on Georgia’s Stone Mountain, about a thousand miles south from where Mount Rushmore would be. In 1915, the KKK would be reborn (it had faded during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War) in a ceremony on Stone Mountain.

Borglum was an “avid and influential supporter” of the KKK, Taliaferro wrote in “Great White Fathers,” even though there was no proof that he was a card-carrying member of the organization. He was involved in their politics, attended rallies, served on committees, and saw them as a source of funds for his work on Stone Mountain. He was a white supremacist who said, “I would not trust an Indian, off-hand, 9 out of 10,” and wrote, “All immigrants are undesirable,” even though his father was a Danish immigrant. He also took great pride in his Norse heritage, according to his writings.

The KKK did financially back the Stone Mountain project, even though Borglum tried to obscure its involvement. But infighting within the Klan by the mid-1920s, as well as stalled fundraising for the monument, led to Borglum leaving the project. He was approached by a historian to take on the Mount Rushmore project in South Dakota, enraging his backers on Stone Mountain. By 1927, he began carving Mount Rushmore, devoting the last 14 years of his life to the project that was finished by his son.

The KKK does not appear to have been behind any funding for Mount Rushmore. According to Deloria, Borglum received mostly federal funding for Rushmore, and he had left too much bad blood behind in Georgia to receive further funding. Taliaferro described how Borglum and the Mount Rushmore committee struggled to find funds for Rushmore for a few years. They scraped together finances from magnates and a senator, and by 1929 received federal funding. Out of the total expenditure of $989,000, the government had contributed $836,000, according to “Great White Fathers.” 

Even though this meme highlighted key elements of Mount Rushmore’s darkest history, some of its facts were incorrect or pulled out of necessary context. While the man behind Mount Rushmore was very closely aligned with the KKK, evidence suggested that the organization itself did not fund the monument’s creation. But the monument remained tied to a racist past, highlighting figureheads who were slave owners and despised by Native Americans, and built on land that was indeed stolen by the U.S. government.