American Spirit: Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone, 5 landmarks built on land stolen from Native Americans

Some of the Native American villages are sacred and have stood the test of time and are manifested in this day and age as ruins, while others were coveted by the colonizers, renamed or simply forgotten


                            American Spirit: Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone, 5 landmarks built on land stolen from Native Americans
Various Native American tribes: An Iroquois, an Assiniboine, a Crow, a Pawnee, an Assiniboine in gala dress, a Dakota or Sioux warrior and a Dakota or Sioux woman (Engraved by JJ Crew )

Long before the United States of America came into existence or any government established by European colonists came to power, many Native American nations called the vast lands of America their home. They built vibrant communities, thousands of years before the arrival of the colonizers. Each Native nation had its government and possessed unique cultures and lifestyles. When the non-Indian governments were established from Canada, all across the continent and right through South America, the Native Nations endured mass devastation. Historically, the United States government was notorious for acquiring Native American lands and resources. It systematically used federal policies to eliminate, displace and destroy Native life. 

But Native American history is crucial to the country's adversity for being the first history of the United States. Some of their villages are sacred have stood the test of time and are manifested in this day and age as ruins, while others were coveted by the colonizers, renamed or simply forgotten. Here are five landmarks that you may not have known were built on Native American land:

Mount Rushmore — South Dakota

The busts of U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln tower over the Black Hills at Mount Rushmore National Monument on July 02, 2020, near Keystone, South Dakota (Getty Images)

The faces of the four eminent US Presidents are carved into a mountain known to the Lakota Sioux Native American tribe as 'The Six Grandfathers'. The history of the monument's creation is marred with struggle and as many would also deem it, desecration. The tribe, the original occupants of the area before the white settlers arrived, consider the Black Hills as sacred and part of their creation stories. In the Treaty of 1868, the US government promised the Sioux territory their lands in perpetuity. In reality, however, the perpetuity lasted only until the Americans realized the mountains had gold and prospectors migrated there in the 1870s. The federal government later forced the Sioux to give up that portion of their land. Despite the tribe's opposition, the monument was sculpted between 1927 and 1941 and is now one of the US' biggest tourist attractions. But the Sioux still despise the monument because it was built on the land that the government took from them and it celebrates the European settlers who killed many Native Americans and appropriated their land. 

Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming, Montana and Idaho

Heinrich Berann NPS Panorama of Yellowstone without labels (Wikimedia Commons)

The areas and resources within the Yellowstone National Park have been historically connected to at least 26 Native American tribes. The first known appearance of any indigenous tribes in the Greater Yellowstone area can be dated between the 15th century and 18th century by the Kiowa tribe, and later the ancestors of the Blackfeet, Cayuse, Coeur d’Alene, Bannock, Nez Perce, Shoshone, and Umatilla tribes. The Kiowa and Crow tribes, in particular, are associated with traditional stories of hot springs in the area. In Kiowa folklore, for example, the tribe believes that their creator gifted them the land through a hot spring called 'Dragon's Mouth'. The Shoshone and Bannock tribes hunted bison and other animals in the plains. The Crow tribe typically occupied the area in the east of the park, the Blackfeet in the north, while the Shoshone, the Bannock, and other tribes traveled through the park every year, to hunt in the plains to the east. The tribes are currently collectively advocating for the federal government to change the name of the Mount Doane in Yellowstone Park to 'First People's Mountain'. Mount Doane was named after Army Lieutenant Gustavus Doane, who had led the 1870 Marias Massacre that slaughtered 200 Piikani people. 

Four Corners Monument — Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah

(Wikimedia Commons)

According to anthropologists, the Navajos or Diné (as they call themselves 'The People') are estimated to have arrived in the Southwest some 1,000 years ago. They speak of their arrival on the earth as a part of the creation story. The Navajo are believed to have learned the ropes of agriculture after arriving in the Four Corners area where they settled. In the winter of 1864, the United States defeated Mexico and gained control of a vast chunk of the territory in modern-day Southwest and California. During this time they gained a substantial enemy in Colonel Kit Carson, who had them forcibly displaced from their lands. He instituted a scorched earth policy, burning Navajos fields and homes and stealing or killing their livestock. After Navajos were starved into submission, Carson gathered some 8,000 men, women, and children and compelled them to walk 300 miles to a military outpost called Fort Sumner in New Mexico, where they were imprisoned. the Navajos called this 'The Long Walk' and not everyone survived the four years in prison. In 1968, they signed the Navajo Treaty with the US government allowed them to return to a small portion of their land, currently occupied in the Four Corner area of the US.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument - Arizona and New Mexico

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Ajo, Arizona. (Getty Images)

The desert west to Tuscon is home to an Indian reservation known as the Tohono O'Odham people. It is densely covered by various types of cacti including the ubiquitous saguaro which is scared to the tribe and the rare organ pipe, which grows only in the far south. The extensive section of the Sonoran desert bordering Mexico is called the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is now the site of construction. The Trump administration has been blasting the hillside to erect a border separating Mexico from the US. Designated a national monument by President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1937, the Organ Pipe area boasts a rich human history dating back at least 15,000 years. The Tohono O’odham culture relied on the fruit of the saguaros and organ pipe cactus for food. With the construction of the wall underway, dozens of environmental laws from the Endangered Species Act to the Clean Airt Act were suspended to accelerate construction. The tribe, which has been confined to just a small portion of the desert land claimed that the suspension of the laws had allowed damage to their scared ancestral lands, including burial grounds.

Niagara Falls - New York

The falls, which have a combined highest flow rate of any waterfalls in the world, straddle the U.S.-Canada border, drawn through the Niagara River, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario (Getty Images)

'Niagara Falls' gets its name from one of the earliest native tribes, the Onguiaahra, that arrived in the village. Among them were the Iroquois group of Native Americans called the Atiquandaronk who remained neutral in their stance as the Iroquois and Huron tribes butted heads and engaged in war. They earned the name 'Neutrals' from the French settlers who first came to the village. Other tribes in the area included the Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Huron, Petun, Erie, and the Susquehannock, but Iroquois eventually pushed them out of the area. The Mississauga Native Americans gradually inhabited the areas abandoned by the Neutral and Erie Native Americans. By 1722, the Tuscarora Native Americans lived on a reservation on the east bank of the Niagara River, while the Seneca Native Americans adopted them into their tribe along with the O'Neida Native Americans. The went on to become members of the Iroquois League of Six Nations. The Iroquois, however, lost much of their land and autonomy post the War of 1812, when more foreign settlers arrived. 

American Spirit is a campaign on the issues faced by the Native American Community in America. Over the next few days, this column will feature stories of determination, triumph, legacy and redemption.

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