Carved Rockfaces and Indigenous Powers: Pondering Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore

I have been puzzling over why it is that the two most prominent carved rockfaces in the United States–Georgia’s Stone Mountain and the Black Hills’ Mount Rushmore–which are both subject to considerable renewed controversy at the present moment, are incised upon spaces that were, and are still, held sacred in Native American communities. More is going on I suspect than the opportunistic use by white sculptors and monument-makers of available, spectacular natural canvases. The ritual potency of these magnificent landscape sites for the indigenous inhabitants of the continent, I tend to think, while only dimly understood by white artists and planners, still exercised some sort of pull upon these white actors, driving them, in ways they did not consciously understand, to refashion locales of autochthonous spiritual power in more familiar (and pointedly white) forms.

Stone Mountain Georgia. Confederate bas relief.

The drive seems to have been akin to what historian Terrence Ranger (1987) terms the impulse “to take hold of the land” in 20th century Zimbabwe, as Christian missionaries and local evangelists appropriated indigenous sites of power on the landscape, recasting them as Christian sites of pilgrimage. The pattern echoes that found in Europe, as Christian actors on expanding frontiers of Christendom reclassified “pagan” landscape sites, including megaliths, as places of Christian veneration.

Having said that, there appear to be some special features to white monumentalism in North America, that are rather distinct from practices of appropriation in Old World and African contexts. My thinking is influenced by Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel American Gods (2001) in which he rather playfully ponders why (overwhelmingly, white) Americans feel compelled to erect enormous garish roadside attractions (the world’s largest Paul Bunyan, the world’s largest light bulb, extravagantly humongous dinosaurs, and so forth) seemingly at random across the national landscape. Gaiman suggests that although they lack any deep understanding of Native American spirituality, these more recent arrivals sense, if only distantly, that they are in the presence of places of power, which they seek to mark, access, fix, and redirect. While non-indigenous Americans speak of the land as “our land,” they remain haunted, Gaiman suggests, by a sense that the Land, in its fullest form, escapes their full capacity to encompass it, and thus they are compelled, in ways they can never fully comprehend, to try to take hold of that very land through monumental practices, many of them hyperbolic and extravagant.

Rock City’s Fairyland Caverns

Gaiman playfully suggests that the ultimate instance of this tendency is Rock City at Lookout Mountain, visiting by thousands following the injunction to “See Rock City, ” painted across innumerable signs and barn sides, venture through a phantasmagoric array that is drawn primarily from European folklore–carved gnomes, elves, and Fairyland kitsch, including Mother Goose and Humpty Dumpty–in a winding maze through light and darkness. Acts of carving and mimesis seem to key here: the impulse is to impose form upon that which is formless, to capture and contain (and palatably market) the vast oceanic depths of the sublime in ways that are seemingly knowable and proximate.

Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore would seem to be closely related special instances of this general white American tendency to inscribe figurative form upon indigenous spiritually-charged landscape locales. It is to be sure very difficult to reconstruct the meanings that Stone Mountain had for earlier indigenous inhabitants. It is known that across the rounded top of the mountain, a stone wall was constructed many centuries prior to European contact, evidently prior to the onset of Mississippian civilization, into which a low entrance doorway had been placed, perhaps evocative, some have suggested, of a space of symbolic rebirth. It is known that early white visitors would tear down these rocks and roll them over the precipice, and that sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who initially oversaw the neo-Confederate carving project at Stone Mountain before parting with the enterprise, also had many of these Native rocks removed. ostensibly to protect workmen laboring below the summit from falling stones. The rebirth of the second Ku Klux Klan upon this mountaintop in November 1915, on the eve of the Atlanta screening of Birth of a Nation. seems consistent with a white impulse to simultaneously access and dominate Native American spiritual capacity in the interest of making white supremacy pointedly visible: the burning cross upon the mountaintop, bringing light to darkness, ritually re-enacted white control over communities of color, and perhaps also emulated the power of D.W. Griffith’s film itself, which Woodrow Wilson infamously celebrated as “History writ in lightning.”

Stone Mountain, Georgia

Borglum, himself a Klan member, began work with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which had leased the Stone Mountain site, to honor the leaders of the Confederacy in an enormous carved bas-relief on the mountain site. Earlier plans called for a vast army of carved Confederate soldiers and modern Klansman to swarm over the mountain, led by the figure of General Lee on his faithful horse Traveler, ceremonially enacting the rise of the white-dominated South. Budgetary constraints, and political differences led to Borglum’s departure and a pause to the project. (As Hale argues in her book Making Whiteness, the UDC was primarily motivated by a desire to glorify the Confederate cause, while Borglum was more taken with the motif of sectional reconciliation, reuniting the leadership of the Confederacy and the Union, a symbolic unification which, as David Blight demonstrates in Race and Reunion (2001), rested upon a triumph of white political domination over African Americans.

In light of Hale and Blight’s overall argument, it should not be surprising that it was only in the context of postwar massive white resistance to court-ordered integration, and the concomitant rise of neo-confederate symbolism through the region, that the Stone Mountain project was revived and completed, with the three heroes of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, shown astride their horses, their hats held across their hearts, forever faithful to the Lost Cause.

Although there is no explicit representation of Native American presence in this monumental work of carving, I am put in mind of Renée Bergland’s argument in her fascinating 2000 book, National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects. In dominant white literary and cultural imaginings, Native Americas, she argues, have long been rendered spectral figures, partially honored but more fundamentally marginalized, subjects of white anxiety, fear, veneration, and dismissal, in complex acts of disavowal, a refusal to acknowledge fully the histories of genocide and land seizure upon which the nation is founded. What remains for most white writers is a lingering sense of frisson in the presence of the ghostly Native American figure, a partial return of the repressed, which ultimately is written over in white literary practice to make the national landscape “American.’

Something similar, I suggest, is at play in the Stone Mountain confederate memorial. The energies which drive forth these three deceased galloping horseman, and which would have driven the never completed bas-relief of thousands of Confederate soldiers and Klansmen, involved a summoning up of the Armies of the Dead. To bring the Dead out of their kingdom and into the present world of the living (and here I am only speculating) involves tapping into vast spiritual reservoirs associated with spectral Native American presence, what Bergland terms “the national uncanny.” The enterprise of white supremacy, and of an associated regime of white racial terror, paradoxically, rests upon the continuous appropriation of Native American powers, embedded in an awe-inspiring landscape.

Comparable dynamics, it would seem, inform Gutzon Borglum’s masterpiece at Mount Rushmore, imposed on a high rockface in the Black Hills, long held sacred by Native Americans. The carved shaped form of white faces is actively imposed on the relatively formlessness of the prior, sacred mountainscape. In this reading, it is hardly coincidental that three of those depicted, Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, were actively devoted to the displacement of Native Americans and the expansion of white national control over previous Native-held lands, and that the fourth, Theodore Roosevelt, presided over American expansion into an overseas Imperium. The core logic appears to be one of national (white-coded) expansionism, which in the context of the monument is animated (these are human faces after all) through the imputed magicality of Native spirituality, embedded, as in Stone Mountain, within a glorious natural edifice of stone, the most palpable signifier of the Eternal. In this respect, it is fascinated that Borglum dreamed of carving out, behind the sculpted faces, a Hall of Records, in which the story of his monument, along with the founding documents of the Republic, would be stored for all time. The energies of a place that had existed since time immemorial would be redirected, in effect, towards the forging of an infinite future for the Nation, a nation that rested for Borglum and his supporters, upon triumphant white males gazing out upon a conquered and subjugated landscape, as far as the mind’s eye can see.


Bergland,Renée L. The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects University Press of New England, 2000

David W. Blight. 2001 Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard University Press.

Gaiman, Neil. 2001. American Gods. Harper Collins.

Grace Elizabeth Hale. 1998. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940, New York: Pantheon Books, 1998

Ranger, Terrence, Taking Hold of the Land; Holy Places and Pilgrimages in Twentieth-Century Zimbabwe. Past & Present, Volume 117, Issue 1, 1 November 1987

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