Benjamin Black Elk—Mount Rushmore's Real Missing Fifth Face

Not for the first time, President Donald Trump has nominated himself for Mount Rushmore, tweeting Sunday night that he deserves inclusion on the national memorial "perhaps more than any other Presidency."

According to the National Parks Service there is no secure surface left for additional carved busts on The Six Grandfathers cliff face—a judgment made by sculptor Lincoln Borglum after the death of his father, and the project's designer, Gutzon Borglum. The Rock Bock Monitoring System installed at the end of the last century has so far confirmed Borglum's judgment.

Mount Rushmore already had a fifth face anyway: Benjamin Black Elk.

Native Americans and supporters protest President Donald Trump's visit to Mount Rushmore on July 3, 2020 in Keystone, South Dakota. Protesters shut down the road leading to president's Mt. Rushmore event for four hours, with representatives from multiple tribes standing alongside Black Lives Matter protesters. They were pepper sprayed by the police and National Guard. Photo by Micah Garen/Getty Images

Beginning in the 1950s, Ben Black Elk posed for summer tourists to Mount Rushmore, sometimes appearing in as many as five thousand photographs in a day. His celebrity grew in 1962, when Ben Black Elk appeared in the first live, transatlantic broadcast enabled by the launch of the Telstar 1 satellite. That same year he played an Arapaho chief in the sprawling Hollywood western How the West Was Won.

Ben Black Elk used his celebrity to promote Lakota traditions, combining personal appearances with popular lectures. In 1968, he argued in favor of teaching indigenous history to Native American children before the Senate Committee on Indian Education.

Upon his death in 1974, The New York Times made note of his reputation as the most photographed Native American ever, and of his nickname, "The Fifth Face on Mount Rushmore."

Ben Black Elk, 73, with Mt. Rushmore in the background, photographed after a 1972 meeting with Democratic presidential candidate Senator George McGovern. The Indian was photographed on the occasion of his meeting with Senator George McGovern, Democratic presidential candidate. Bettmann / Contributor

While Ben Black Elk used Mount Rushmore as a platform for sharing Lakota history and culture, for indigenous Americans the national monument is more often a reminder of unredressed conflicts between the United States and the Lakota Sioux people.

"Mount Rushmore is on stolen Lakota land and its very existence is a symbol of white supremacy," Nick Tilsen, President and CEO of the NDN Collective, said in a press release timed to Trump's July 3 speech held before the monument. "In opposing the ongoing desecration of our sacred land and asking for return of Lakota lands where Mount Rushmore is situated, we're not saying anything that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents haven't already said—The Lakota have opposed Mount Rushmore since the very beginning."

The Black Hills, named Paha Sapa by the Lakota, are a range of mountains in South Dakota, extending into Wyoming. Held by the Lakota since the 18th century, the Black Hills was part of territory acknowledged as the Great Sioux Reservation in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which included, from the east bank of the Missouri River, virtually the entire western half of South Dakota, to be "set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians herein named."

But after a gold rush less than a decade later, and the defeat of the Lakota in the ensuing Black Hills War, the U.S. government annexed the Sioux land in 1877 and pushed the Lakota on to smaller reservations carved out of the territory.

In 1980, the Supremer Court ruled that the Black Hills had been illegally seized without just compensation in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians. Upholding a lower court's ruling, the Sioux were to be paid $106 millon. But the Sioux tribal council refused the money, instead launching subsequent legal claims to the land, which have included stalled congressional legislation and backing from the U.N. Human Rights Council, which found "inadequate implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples" in regards to the Black Hills land claims.

Indigenous groups like NDN Collective continue to call for Mount Rushmore's closure and the return of the Black Hills to the Lakota people. Beyond legal measures, activists have also taken a stand against the monument, such as the multi-day 1971 occupation of the mountain by the American Indian Movement. Tilsen was one of 20 arrested as a result of protests against Trump's 4th of July weekend appearance at Mt. Rushmore.

"We made it clear that the President of the United States was not welcome in our territory, without the free prior and informed consent of our People and of our Tribal leaders," Tilden said, after being detained for three days.

In his own advocacy for Lakota tradition, Ben Black Elk followed his father, Black Elk, or Heȟáka Sápa (Heȟáka meaning 'Elk' and Sápa meaning 'Black'), a holy man of the Oglala, one of the seven sub-tribes of the Lakota people, who are one of the main subcultures of the Great Sioux Nation.

Ben Black Elk's father, Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk, photographed in the 1880s. Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Witness to the Battle of the Greasy Grass (as the Lakota call the Battle of Little Bighorn, in which combined Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho forces defeated Lieutenant Colonel George Custer's 7th Cavalry) at age 13, Black Elk travelled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and fought to protect wounded during the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, when the United States Army opened fire with mounted guns on a captive Lakota camp, killing more than 250 men, women and children.

But Black Elk became most famous for his spiritual wisdom, shared with poet and ethnologist John Neihardt and published in the 1932 book Black Elk Speaks. Overseen by Lakota elders, Black Elk Speaks became an international bestseller in the 1960s.

Decades before becoming one of the most photographed men in history, Ben Black Elk served as interpreter between his father and Neihardt. After his father's death in 1950, Ben Black Elk continued sharing traditional Lakota stories and history in schools throughout the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Whatever faces are carved into the stone of The Six Grandfathers, Ben Black Elk and other indigenous activists have ensured that the land's full history continues to be heard.