Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest

Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest


Howard Adelman

I am home, but not entirely in one piece. I had developed an abscess in one tooth and on Thursday obtained an immediate appointment with my dentist because of my aching gums on my left side. The result: two abscesses and two root canals. I am now on antibiotics. Much better than a toothache. Actually, it was not a toothache, but a tenderness in my upper gum on the left side. I thought I had a gum infection. But that is the nature of pain. It often misdirects as it diffuses.

Since I knew I would be writing about Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, I was reminded of his mastery of the techniques of misdirection. The Wrong Man (1956), created three years before North by Northwest (1959), opens with a scene in a posh nightclub as we watch couples dancing as the credits roll. Gradually, the dancers thin out and all the couples eventually disappear from the dance floor. When the credits end, the camera focuses on the bass player, Manny, played by Henry Fonda. The band had heretofore been vaguely in the background, but suddenly ordinariness is in the foreground. So in the usual trope which leads us first to believe we are going to watch a gangster movie, we are jolted by the focus on something other. Presumably, we are moving from the usual highly stylized Alfred Hitchcock movie to a realistic docudrama.

After all, the film advertised itself as based on the true story of an ordinary bloke who went to borrow money from his insurance company using his insurance policy as collateral. He had a wife, Rose (Vera Miles), and two sons. He needed the money to pay for Rose’s dentist bill. (After last week’s experience, the latter is absolutely true to reality.) But Manny is identified as a robber who held up that branch a few weeks earlier. He is arrested. Hitchcock’s usual obsession with mistaken identity can then proceed. But only after we are misdirected again and again as when Manny is shown to be totally familiar with the doorman at The Stork Club, as he marks a page on the daily racing form and as he is stared at suspiciously by a police officer only to reveal his ordinariness after we are led to believe he is somewhat sinister. When he returns to a dark house, gropes through the rooms and stumbles into what turns out to be his bedroom, to our surprise, instead of being up to something nefarious, he is confronted by his wife in bed nursing a toothache. What appeared so menacing turns into an unfamiliar, for Hitchcock, domestic drama with an experience familiar to everyone. But the movie soon quickly reverses itself once again.

The toothache is a central symbol in the movie, at once totally familiar while, at the same time, totally destabilizing. You cannot eat. You cannot sleep. North by Northwest also relies on constant misdirection, but it is really about the monumental rather than an ordinary toothache and ordinary humans, though the movie also begins with the hotel band playing, but the music is “It’s a most unusual day.” The film, as I will try to demonstrate, that is ostensibly an ironic comic spy thriller, is really about idolatry.

The movie begins with a sharply-dressed man in a gray flannel suit, a man in advertising, a field described in the film, as not about lies but just “expedient exaggeration.” Are the faces of the presidents on Mount Rushmore not inflated visages and both outsized and mis-directed tributes to the American spirit? This motif would be extensively elaborated upon in the television series The Mad Men. Cary Grant plays the role of a man without even an ordinary identity, for he has no identity whatsoever. He is the archetype of the advertising executive with two divorces behind him as he fails to learn repeatedly what is behind it all as he pursues the only identity he knows, his role as a sexual seducer – James Bond Predux.

The movie is about foreign agents and the American intelligence service as parodies. The Professor (Leo G. Carroll) heads the unit of the intelligence service. The spies are led by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). They target the unrecognizable Christ figure or sacrificial lamb, Roger O. Thornhill because they mistake him for an invented counter-intelligence agent named George Kaplan who is really a decoy created by the American intelligence agency. Thornhill effectively becomes Kaplan and, in temporarily suspending what he believes is his real identity, in the romantic comedy, he discovers what it really is. He plays along to “clear his name’ and gains clarity in the process.

Though I have no intention of exploring the psychic and interpersonal dimensions of the film, I cannot help referring to the relationship between Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) with his mother (Jesse Royce Landis) in the context of America’s and Hitchcock’s love affair with Freudianism at the time. The film opens with Thornhill snapping his fingers at a bellboy to send his mother a telegram just when the bellhop is paging for George Kaplan. Two nefarious characters, who turn out to be U.S. security agents, mistake Thornhill for George Kaplan, another character who really does not exist, thereby setting the plot in motion. The metaphorical larger plot is ostensibly set in motion by the hard-headed hard-drinking men of America who are at heart just mothers’ boys.

Thornhill as a heavy drinker refers to his mother as sniffing his breath like a bloodhound. In a very comic scene in an elevator, Roger Thornhill whispers to her that the two men in the elevator are trying to kill him, and she blurts out loudly that no one would want to kill my son. Thornhill calls his mother at Grand Central Station and insists, “there is no place to hide.” However, everything is revealed in spite of the repression, the intrigue and the conspiratorial proceedings.

The picture quickly drawn is of an overprotected and smothered son of a mother who refuses to recognize who her own son really is. So he never matures to develop an adult identity but, instead, becomes an advertising executive wallowing in the projection of appearances, a person who tries to drown his misbegotten soul in alcoholic spirits, and who pursues women as possessions and seems incapable of the sacrifice required of true love. However, this is a romantic comedy. So, at the end of the movie, the hero and the heroine enter a tunnel of love. Is the hero really a symbol of America at the time?

I owe most of my knowledge about Alfred Hitchcock and his films to my former colleague at York University in the film department, Robin Wood, though I take full responsibility for this interpretation. North by Northwest is an allegory and a statement about the politics of place. Mount Rushmore is located, not in a particular place, but “north by northwest,” a direction that has no location, for north by northwest is an invented direction with no grounding in reality. No such direction exists. Northwest north does. So does west by north or north by west. But not north by northwest. So the film is about giving content and meaning where there is none and, at the same time, revealing the flatulence of claimed meaning.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act II, Scene II), before Polonius enters when we hear the repartee about men being great babies “not yet out of his swaddling clothes,” and Rosencrantz refers to man as “twice a child,” Hamlet tells Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern that, “I am not mad north-north-west.” Hamlet knows a “hawk from a handsaw.” When the wind is north-north-west in the morning in Britain, the sun is in the hunter’s eyes and the hunter cannot distinguish between two different kinds of birds – birds of prey and birds preyed upon. Hamlet is insisting that most times he is not mad and can distinguish true friends from traitors – like Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern. North by Northwest goes one step further in alluding to a time when one cannot even distinguish one direction from another and a person is flying in a fictional direction that does not even exist so one can never distinguish the predator from the victim.

North by Northwest is not just a comic thriller full of both suspense and witticisms, it is not just a comedy about spies and a love tryst, but is and was an allegory for its age. After visiting Mount Rushmore, I understood the film much better, and having watched the movie a number of times (I was unable to get the movie on Netflix to watch it once again to make sure my recall was accurate), the film is not just a play on mistaken identity, misplaced trust and betrayal – themes I have written about previously. The movie is an allegory about the U.S.A.

There are at least three levels of the allegory in the film: the personal and the interpersonal (that I referred to above); the social and the political; and the metaphysical and mythological. I will focus primarily on the latter two sets of categories. I do so to enhance the understanding of the monument at Mount Rushmore. The mistaken identity and the shifts in the virtues each of the presidents is claimed to embody when their bodies were never carved in stone. (To this day, the sculptures remain unfinished.) These disembodied, abstract and displaced identities on Mount Rushmore are so evident that they cannot be ignored. Rushmore is a symbol of 1920’s American crass materialism and the film is an allegory about that materialism. The film is about a man in a gray flannel suit, the Mad Men in advertising in the fifties, a field dedicated not simply to advertising the virtues of this or that product, but to consumerism, to the vision that if you consume this or that product, your identity as a sexual being will be enhanced.

In the 1959 movie, Cary Grant plays Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive caught up in an identity confusion, or really a series of identity confusions – beginning when he raises his hand just when a bellboy in a hotel lobby is calling out the name of someone with a Jewish name called George Kaplan. Henceforth, the two American government agents will be fixated in the belief that Thornhill is Kaplan. After all, this is very suitable since the O as the ostensible initial for Thornhill’s middle name, as we are told in the movie, stands for nothing – both in the sense that he has no middle name and in the sense at the centre of this man’s character there is nothing. Is this an underhanded dig at Hitchcock’s partner/producer, David O. Selznick, at M.G.M. whose middle initial also stood for nothing?

Thornhill is obviously a reference to the crown of thorns on Christ’s head that he wore when he was crucified on Mount Calvary (Golgotha). The mad rationalist “professor” who has created Kaplan as an invented figure to draw away suspicion from his counterspy, Eve Kendall, played with such magnificence by Eva Marie Saint, is quite willing to sacrifice Roger Thornhill to advance the goals of America. He is even willing to sacrifice his own agent, Eve Kendall. I have never been able to sort out what the name “Roger” symbolized, but I did speculate that it stood for the famous Roger II, the Count of Sicily and the Duke of Paglia in the twelfth century who had been a dramatic icon of idolatry, for he embodied the doctrine of both being God’s representative on earth and an embodiment of absolute sovereignty.

The play on names extends to women, more in this film than in any of his other movies – Eve for the woman who is both the slave of men – Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with both portraying women under the control of men and his insatiable need to do so in real life  (see Hitchcock and The Girl) – at the same time as he portrayed them and actually pictured each blonde as a femme fatale, a person  with only a sexual identity, both as an agent of seduction and an instrument of manipulation. The film is about humans whose individual personal identity has been lost for iconic purposes in service to abstract ideas and dreams rather than self-expression and self-realization.

The movie is an allegory about a story driven by capturing space without finding a real place or centre of gravity. America has been a quest for space and for place by resettled immigrants who have fled the old world. Thus, the iconography of chase scenes and flight so well captured in the pursuit of permanence by a people with no grounded sense of place and placement. America evinces a vertiginous sensibility as its inhabitants never can find a place that is then really one’s own.

When Cary Grant utters those weirdly hilarious, but very ironic words, as he and Eve are climbing down Mount Rushmore, “I do not like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me,” we get some glimpse into the sense of American identity as a negotiation between an unachievable ideal and everyday reality that on the surface seems so practical and grounded, but in truth is so abstract, displaced and misplaced. As Cary Grant is located in the crossroads among those same cornfields that Nancy and I just drove through, a crop dusting plane flies overhead when there are no crops to dust. The pilot tries to shoot Cary Grant.

The move is an allegory of mistaken identity and of identity that needs to be created, and of an ostensible struggle between good and evil but in practice, it is difficult to distinguish the difference. In the Cold War between the arch villain spy, Phillip Vandamm and the defender against those spies, The Professor, the domestic “evil” upholder of America with the corresponding determination to use whatever means necessary and to sacrifice whomever in service of American preservation. In this allegory, the war between these two Cold War icons is really a war between two evil twins both domestically and in foreign affairs.

Who supposedly held those ideals? If the movie is taken seriously as an allegory and not just as a suspense spy thriller, then, on one side, it is the foundation of American consumerism. In the area of foreign affairs rather than domestic policy, the film is an allegory about the foundations of American imperialism, but without making any coherent critique of the relationship between consumerism at home and imperialism abroad. Certainly, it is at the very least an indictment of both. The combination is embodied in the hero as the benign and stumbling anti-hero in the figure of Thornhill played by Cary Grant. Whatever else he is, Thornhill is a survivor par excellence. The Professor, who uses both Grant and Eva Marie Saint to advance American global interests in its war, against communists, is the strongest embodiment of the American spirit. Lest humanitarian universalism be seen as a solution to international conflict,. Townsend, the diplomat in the UN, is killed at the very beginning of the film. Townsend’s death really sets Cary Grant off in full flight as he is considered the suspected killer. The UN is also a place that is no place, where the town ends.

The film is, in addition, a critique of a surveillance culture that over fifty years later has become so much more invasive. It is a critique of the uninhibited exercise of power.  But mostly in the imagery and use of Mount Rushmore, the movie is a critique of misplaced trust in some forms of authority that embody vices projected as virtues. As Cary Grant ironically remarks as he and Eva climb down a face on Mount Rushmore, “I don’t like the way Teddy is looking at me.”

In the other iconic scene in the movie, the attack by the crop duster airplane against Cary Grant’s Thornhill stranded at a crossroads in the American prairies, possibly Nebraska or more likely South Dakota, is where America is. When Thornhill is placed in the heartland of the real America, and not in an office in Manhattan promoting consumption to American citizens based on the misuse and abuse of the creative impulse, at the crossroads of the international and the domestic, we are presented with an adumbration of the use of agent orange in the Vietnam War to kill innocents on the ground. The airplane in the picture is equipped with machine guns of a warplane as well as poisonous pesticides. The crop duster, or, as it is more commonly referred to in agricultural areas as top dresser, is also a play on words about the superficialities of the top and the surface presentation in juxtaposition to true reality revealed by the action versus the static presentation.

North by Northwest is a film about no place and no body, about Manhattan that is not the antithesis to the heartland of America, but is its most publicized expression, about propaganda as the presentation of disembodied faces turned into iconic idols of vices presented as virtues. And all of this is founded on a misogyny in which women in the form of Eve are reduced to the dialectical interplay of erotic seduction and women reduced to pure instrumentality.  In the face of this assault, Cary Grant, as the master actor conveying befuddlement in a character that is the exemplar of attenuated maturation, is presented as incredulous and naïve in the extreme, as one who is oblivious to what is really going on all around yet will insist, “I get the message.”

Do the viewers?

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial


Howard Adelman

Because we were driving west to east, we passed the Crazy Horse Memorial (CHM) on our way to Mount Rushmore (MR) located seventeen kilometres south of Mount Rushmore about a mile from Custer, South Dakota. On Thunderhead Mountain. We spent four hours there and could have stayed longer, but we wanted to allow three hours for Mount Rushmore. As it turned out, we need not have rushed since we spent less than an hour at the MR monument where we found the excellent ice cream to be the most memorable part of the visit. This blog is as much about the latter as it is about the Crazy Horse Memorial, if only by way of contrast and comparison.

That is not just my shtick. When you are at the Crazy Horse Memorial, the comparisons are thrust at you all the time. Let me list some of the notable points of comparison:

  • MR is a post WWI monument begun in the 1920s and left incomplete in 1941 when the Americans entered WWII; CHM is a post WWII monument started in 1948 and continues to this day, 67 years later
  • MR has been left unfinished; CHM is on-going and will take decades to complete.
  • MR ostensibly honours the core values of the American dream as exemplified by the four presidents, namely independence from foreign rule (Washington), territorial expansion (Jefferson), preservation of the union (Lincoln) and the rights of Americans to realize their manifest destiny by memorializing the hero of the Spanish-American War and builder of the Panama Canal as an exemplar of all the “highest” qualities of those who “tamed the West”; in contrast, the values of Crazy Horse celebrated by the sculpture combine his skill in battle with his enormous integrity, his defensive vision for his people and his selfless dedication to their welfare
  • Both monuments started as the vision of a single man, Doane Robinson, superintendent of South Dakota’s State Historical Society in the case of MR, and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear for CHM
  • Chief Standing Bear had first tried to get Crazy Horse memorialized on Mount Rushmore and only when he was unsuccessful did he opt to pursue the dream of a separate sculpture to send out a message that, “my fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes too”
  • Behind the MR monument was an imperial political vision; behind the CHM was the vision of preserving a culture, both in memory and in life
  • Both projects were appropriated by the vision of the sculptors chosen to execute the vision, John Gutzon Borglum (JGB) in the case of MR, and Korczak Ziolkowski (KZ) in the case of the CHM
  • Both sculptors were highly recognized when they assumed responsibility for their respective projects, though Korczak Ziolkowski had worked on the MR project for three weeks in the summer of 1939 before he was fired allegedly, according o a letter on display at the CHM, because Borglun said that the MR project was not large enough for the two of them
  • Both projects were taken over by other family members when the originating sculptor died, Lincoln Borglum for MR and as a family enterprise led by KZ’s wife, Ruth, and their ten children in the case of the CHM
  • Seven months after his father died, Lincoln declared the project “finished” after making some final touches to what had been done to that date; when KZ died on 20 October 1982, his wife and children took responsibility for the project a responsibility that continues to this day and into the foreseeable future
  • MR was from the start a government-funded project; the MCH is boastfully a non-government project that even refuses to accept government funds as contributions
  • While MR began as a dream of carving giant statues to immortalize Clark and Lewis, Buffalo Bill and General Custer who had contributed so much to the “opening” of the West, and morphed into a national monument to celebrate the imperial vision that led to that so-called “opening”, the MCH has also morphed and become as much as a saga about one family – the Ziolkowskis – as about Crazy Horse and Lakota & Indian culture; thus, the short introductory film viewed before visiting the sculpture itself is called “Dreams and Dynamite” and is much more about KZ and his family’s dedication and commitment than about either Chief Standing Bear or Chief Crazy Horse
  • In spite of the artistic dedication required to work on such huge projects lasting over long spans of time, both projects are testimony to the flexibility or adaptability of the artists, for Borglum had been commissioned previously to work on the statues of secessionists and rebels, Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, that were being carved into the Stone Mountain in Georgia, a project he abandoned when it became embroiled in governmental and political infighting, and Borglun easily shifted to celebrating the heroes of America as a unified and powerful singular state; KZ, who had previously won first prize at the New York World’s Fair for his sculpture of the head of enlightened and progressive Governor Wilbur L. Cross of Connecticut (a retired English professor at Yale suddenly thrust into the governor’s mansion in 1931 as the Democratic candidate to successfully unseat the Republicans); the celebration of native culture and love of the land seemed at the opposite end of the spectrum from KZ’s previous enthrallment with sophistication, progressivism and a belief in mastering and improving upon nature
  • MR is overtly a tourist attraction, created from the get-go as such; CHM is an Indian cultural centre, an Indian museum and a nascent university focused on Indian studies, and tourism is used to both solicit donations for all the projects as well as disseminate information about Indian culture
  • In each case, the accuracy of the resemblance of the image to the real person became a bone of contention, especially of Teddy Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore, surprising since he was both a living hero for Borglum before Roosevelt died as well as a patron (Roosevelt had commissioned Borglum to make a bust of Lincoln that Roosevelt exhibited in the White House), while the controversy over the representative quality of Crazy Horse was two-fold – Crazy Horse never wanted even a picture of himself lest the portrait steal his spirit, and, hence, there is no way to measure the accuracy of the sculpture (though there is a sketch drawn by a Mormon missionary which Crazy Horse’s sister said was accurate), but the chiefs who had known Crazy Horse and contended that the model was not an accurate representation of the person, were told by Ziolkowski that the sculpture was iconic and intended to represent all Indians, a contention often repeated when one visits the memorial
  • Both memorials are clearly monumental – the faces of the presidents are 60 feet high – but the head of Crazy Horse alone is 87 feet and the overall dimension of the CHM dwarfs not only Mount Rushmore – it is 641 feet long and 563 feet high –  but three times higher than Niagara Falls and compares favourably with the Egyptian pyramids: the Great Pyramid of Giza is 455 feet high though 756 feet at the base

One could go on with a number of other comparisons, but a major message of the CHM is that it is an antithesis to Mount Rushmore and clearly intended as such. But if MR is a testament to America as an imperial power, Crazy Horse is not pictured as a warrior but as an Indian chief pointing with the sentence stating, ”My lands are where my dead lie buried” in answer to an ostensible challenge by a non-Indian, “Where are your lands now?”  CHM is a sculptural expression of “J’accuse” at the same time both a rebuke and an insistence that the land is Indian land because that is where the ancestors of Indians rest and where the spirit of the Indian people resides. The Black Hills were the sacred burial grounds for the Sioux. The fact that the statue actually points away from the hills is accepted as artistic licence and as only symbolic since it would have been very difficult to blast away the sculpture in any other way.

The pointing is itself controversial and is considered an insult in Lakota culture, equivalent to sculpting Washington with his middle finger pointed upward. Chief Standing Bear and his fellow chiefs had only requested that the head of Crazy Horse be carved into the side of the mountain. KZ took it upon himself to enlarge the vision. Further, many Native Americans consider the monument as desecrating the landscape since sacred hills should not be dynamited and carved into.

However, as an outsider and visitor, I was very deeply moved by the memorial and the story of the Native Americans. The artistic qualities of both Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial may be questionable – and certainly were not what inspired me – and while somewhat put off by the self-glorification of the Ziolkowski family counter-balanced by their clear and unequivocal dedication – I felt a deep kinship with victimhood. Perhaps it is my personal reaction. Perhaps it is because I am a Jew. But I suspect it is more. Monuments to heroes turn me off. Memorials to victims inspire me to pursue justice.

American Idolatry

American Idolatry


Howard Adelman

Three days ago, we raced across five states of the United States of America. We traveled from the middle of Nebraska across Iowa and Illinois and traversed the upper reaches of Indiana to get to Michigan from where we left the next morning to get home late afternoon on the day before yesterday. Arriving home and settling back in is a process that included dealing with a pile of mail higher than me, a telephone message box that was full, as well as the unloading and unpacking from seven months away. Home is a great place to be after you have been away so long, but it requires a couple of days to make it feel like home again.

I have been wanting to write about the responses to the Iranian Nuclear Framework Agreement for days, especially as optimism has turned to pessimism among my friends. But perhaps today’s blog can be considered a prolegomena to another revisit to the Iranian agreement next week. For all agreements are about some degree of trust, even though they are built on distrust and suspicion. This blog is basically about whether America, not Iran, can be trusted to keep treaties.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei last week said that, “If the other side avoids its amphibology [ambiguity] in the [nuclear] talks, it’ll be an experience showing it’s possible to negotiate with them on other issues.” This response feeds the hopes of those negotiators who believe generally that engagement if possible is a better approach than either coercive diplomacy or coercion through military action and who see this agreement as merely a first step in negotiating with Iran on its support of terrorism and its attitude towards Israel as well as Iran’s goal of becoming a regional power.

But one does not have to be so hopeful about larger accomplishments to support the framework agreement or so pessimistic about those larger goals to undermine it. In fact, the deal may crash, not because of the spoilers on each side or because the negotiations over the next two months will be so difficult and tough. It may be sufficient that each side has to engage in public relations or spin to undermine those spoilers such that the use of these steps in public relations themselves undermine the deal. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has already warned the Americans that the “fact sheet” issued by the American side would complicate how the deal is received in Iran. What each side needs to make the case for the deal domestically is often at total odds with what each side has to do to make the deal with one another.

For years I have been on the side of those scholars of international negotiations that stress that the most important aspect that threatens peace agreements has to do with those spoilers who oppose them. Peace is often not made by peaceniks but by ostensible warriors who agree to smoke a peace pipe. That is why it is so often the case that peace agreements are often made by the most belligerent ones in domestic politics because they do not have spoilers to contend with domestically. Today, however, I will write about the monument on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota with the famous sculptures of the faces of four American presidents as iconic representatives of the history of America: George Washington (1732-1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt (1858-1919), that we visited the day before our mad dash home. I also want to write about the monument to Chief Crazy Horse subsequently though we saw it just before visiting Mount Rushmore. I will leave the discussion of Iran for now.

Let me begin with one of the observations we made in crossing Nebraska and especially Iowa. The corn fields were tiered. We were curious why this was the case. I looked for an answer when I got to our hotel room and found an article in the April 1917 issue of the American Threshholder, a popular farmer’s magazine a century ago that spread the message of good farming practices while advertising new tractors and threshing machines and taking advantage of the changes in advertising brought about by the invention of the linotype press one hundred and twenty-five years ago almost to the day in 1890. (As you will understand in the follow-up, the reference to advertising is relevant.) The article was the equivalent of today’s blogs with reflections by a very astute observer on raising corn in the Midwest.

His main point was to prove that, contrary to what the cattlemen had argued, farmers could raise corn in the territory west of the Missouri River, given that the land was semi-arid with relatively small amounts of rainfall. For the writer, it was an important lesson learned “when there was no more north to conquer.” He noted that even in 1917 in Montana, there was as much land under cultivation for corn – 18 million acres – as in Iowa and Illinois put together. The author also posed a challenge to the cattlemen with whom the farmers were in contention. And it always seems to have been thus as ironically implied in the song in Oklahoma. Farmers and cowboys should be friends but the never seem to have been.

The challenge was simple. Recognize truly who the Indians were. Contrary to cowboy beliefs, Indians were not savages. They had been settled farmers who raised corn; the white man had learned the techniques of growing corn, including tiered farming, from the Indians. Evidently, constructing the rolling lands into tiers was used to preserve scarce water. Further, the American settlers had learned those methods from the Indian women. “Are you saying,” this early twentieth century blogger argued against the cowboys, “that the white man cannot do what their Indian sisters had already proven could be done?” He reminded those cowboys that a century earlier, the Lewis and Clark expedition, which had opened up the West for Western and northern expansion, had survived partially by the corn they bought from the Indians.

In reading this essay, I was reminded of a number of observations:

–          The American practice of continuing to use the term Indians, both by native peoples as well as non-natives, contrasts with the Canadian practice that has replaced the term “Indians” with “aboriginal peoples”

–          The American stress was on expansion through settlements combined with the exercise of power

–          Farming was carried out by women in Indian societies as the men hunted and trained to be warriors

–          When we visited the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn where General George Armstrong Custer made his last stand, when the American cavalry first attacked the Indian encampment, they slew women, children and old men as the warriors slipped out of the village into the surrounding forests to be able to regroup later and prepare to counter attack

–          The first casualty that really alerted the Indian encampment was the killing of a young Indian boy; the second was the killing of an Indian woman who had been picking turnips – it was these two killings, and not the famous use of the Indians’ early warning systems, that really woke up the camp to the fact that the camp was under attack by the U.S. cavalry.

–          Runs the Enemy, an Indian chief, was smoking his pipe in his teepee when, “Bullets sounded like hail on tepees and tree tops” as reported by a Hunkpapa warrior. The family of Chief Gall – his two wives and three children – were all killed in the attack

–          The determination that led to the slaughter of every last man under Custer’s immediate command was a result, not only of the determination of the Sioux and Cheyenne to preserve their lands and their way of life as promised, but because of the fury that fired them up when they learned that the American cavalry had so wantonly slaughtered women and children

As one last final point to drive his message home, the author pointed out that the early fur traders had founded a distillery on the Yellowstone River using corn raised by Indians.

All of this is but background to discuss my observations after visiting both the monuments to the presidents at Mount Rushmore and the monument to Crazy Horse 17 miles away in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We were especially pleased that we had seen the latter monument before visiting Mount Rushmore. Let me signal my main general observation. We loved our visit to the monument to Crazy Horse in spite of all the reservations and issues the monument raised. We spent four hours there. We were totally disappointed and put off by our visit to Mount Rushmore. We spent less than an hour there. This was in spite of the fact that I was enthusiastic about the latter visit and had been looking forward to it, and only learned about the monument of Crazy Horse en route (revealing my ignorance of the American west) and we decided to make a side trip to see the monument to Crazy Horse before visiting Mount Rushmore.

To readers unfamiliar with American monuments, especially non-Americans, I only knew of Mount Rushmore because of the important role it played in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, North by Northwest. (More on this in a subsequent blog when I combine film analysis with social observation.) Carved right into the Black Hills of South Dakota, considered sacred to many Sioux people, the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, dynamited and drilled tons of rock to create huge iconic faces of the four former American presidents, except they do not appear in the order in which they served. Theodore Roosevelt looks out from a position further back between Jefferson and Lincoln.

The monument evidently receives three million visitors a year. As the promotional material advertises, “Today visitors come to appreciate this colossal man-made creation, learn about the design and construction process, appreciate its significance as a symbol of the American history of ‘monumental’ leaders (my italics), and to learn about the natural and cultural history of the Black Hills region.” I came away with a very different response. I was both disappointed and very critical of American egoism and insensitivity.

The Black Hills in Sioux culture was the place where the spirit of their ancestors abided. White men scarred the landscape to create a tourist attraction. Further, they did so by boasting that the four figures selected represented different ideals of American development. Washington stands for independence from foreign rule and there are no notes that I read about George Washington’s speculation in land in the Indian territories. Those lands had been recognized by Great Britain as belonging exclusively to Indians “in perpetuity”. They were to be reserved for the Indian peoples.

Washington was motivated to fight the British much more, in my understanding, not primarily because of unfair taxes, but because of restrictions on American expansionism that Great Britain’s treaties with the Indians imposed on American settlers. The fight over taxes that continues until today was just a cover for a much different imperial agenda. Washington at the age of 17 worked as a surveyor for the Ohio Company. That experience aroused his covetous desire for the land across the Allegheny mountains. After all, Washington embodied the opportunistic and visionary businessman as well as a military commander and democratic leader. At the time of his death, Washington owned fifty thousand acres of western land worth then a half million dollars. No other Virginian had been so active in lobbying and working to acquire the West for the expansion of settlements.

American expansionism was built upon a foundation of disrespect for international treaties and a belief in territorial acquisition as much if not more than a resentment of inherited aristocratic authority. As a result, the native Shawnee and Delaware Indians were pushed off their land. “If he (Washington) was at all restless, the form it took was in a determined quest to gain vast tracts of western land that he considered his both by right of discovery as a surveyor and right of conquest as the Virginian who had held on to the frontier backcountry through years of bloody battles and raids. Here his appetite was unquenchable.” Washington matured as a rapacious frontiersman, though, when he retired from his political and military career, as an elder statesman and patrician, he urged Congress to treat Indians more humanely in contrast to his early contempt for Indians as savages who threatened white settlement.

Washington led the faction that believed that the only way to defend against that savagery of Indians was through offence and carrying the battle into Indian territory. The British House of Commons had passed the Quebec Act which expanded the borders of the Quebec colony to include the West south to the Ohio River, thereby denying the “rights of freeborn Englishmen” (Washington) to acquire western lands across the Ohio River. Further, the rights of a freeborn Englishman meant the right of possessive individualism.  “No country ever was or ever will be settled without some indulgences. What inducements do men have to explore uninhabited wilds but the prospect of getting good lands? Would any man waste his time, expose his fortune, nay his life in such a search if he was to share the good and the bad with those who come after him? Surely not.” These words of Washington should have been etched in the stone at Mount Rushmore, but that would not enhance the propagandist vision that Americans have of themselves.

At Mount Rushmore, Thomas Jefferson is not celebrated for his contributions to American democracy and universal human rights, but as an iconic representative of expansionism. After all, Jefferson had written James Monroe (author of the doctrine of America’s manifest destiny) that “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.” His acquisition of the western territories of the Mississippi valley in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 doubled the size of America.

At Mount Rushmore, Abraham Lincoln is not celebrated for his contribution to the emancipation of Blacks from slavery and especially not for his personal humility, but for his preservation of the union and his willingness to use coercive force to achieve that goal. Further, in the quest for unity as an ultimate value, the Lincoln administration had introduced the equivalent of a loyalty oath. Trustworthiness and loyalty to the union became the key criterion for government workers rather than “civil service”.

Theodore Roosevelt, the least visually correct image of his actual visage and with only a hint of his pince-nez as he lurks in the background, is celebrated, not for his belief in the power of America or his open imperial advocacy of expansionism or even for his love of the natural environment, but ironically for his defense of individual rights, but as those rights had evolved into an ideal of the freedom to exercise individual will with the fewest constraints possible on the individual by the state. Yet this colossus was created through federal patronage while the monument to Crazy Horse was created on the libertarian idea of refusing any aid from government.

The political message of Mount Rushmore comes across clearly before you come close to the platform to observe the faces as you proceed to the viewing platform along a wide pathway to pomposity and imperial ambition bordered by pillars with the flags of each of the states. The monument is a dedication to what I would consider false advertising about those presidents, to the art of capitalist “realism,” the American counterpart to the iconic figures of Soviet socialist realism with the same artistic virtues of the worship of the colossal using iconic abstraction for ostensible virtues that ought to be considered vices. Mount Rushmore is propaganda and idolatry at its worst, representing humans as embodying abstract ideas, though there is acknowledgement that everyone has not been pleased with the decision to make the carvings. The monument to Crazy Horse, as I hope to write about, is a direct challenge to American iconography. Given the values that have emerged in the aftermath of post WWII America, it is no surprise that there have been no monetary allocations since 1941 to ensure the completion of the sculptures. The abstract iconic faces will presumably never have bodies.

As one Black visitor wrote as a response to visiting Mount Rushmore, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image!!! Being a Black American I find Mt Rushmore to be another insult to minorities everywhere. Four slave owners (sic!) being recognized for what? Some people just don’t get it and unfortunately it’s the people who are making decisions about America. We (Americans) are slowly being taken apart and if America does not wake up WE are headed [for] destruction. Funny thing is all WE have to do is treat everyone with respect. Make sure that everyone is treated the same regardless of their ethnicity and culture. Unfortunately, America still refuses to respect all people and until that happens, America will continue to fall. America is the best country, WE just have very poor leadership, and it started with those four individuals on MT Rushmore!!!!”