MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL, S.D. – Ben Black Elk was a staple at Mount Rushmore National Memorial during the 1950s and '60s, posing for photos with tourists intrigued by his single-feather headdress and stories of his Lakota people.
Black Elk wasn't part of the official tour, but he became known as the "fifth face on the mountain" after years of sharing American Indians' history and their perspective on the monument, said Gerard Baker, who became Mount Rushmore's first American Indian superintendent in 2004.
Baker and his Mount Rushmore staff on Thursday kicked off an effort to extend his teachings and invite American Indians to the monument with the launch of a self-guided audio tour that can be heard in Black Elk's native tongue.
Lakota spiritual leader and historian Peter V. Catches of Pine Ridge welcomes tourists with "Ca wokisuya ki le justice na democracy ki Americans Indians ki wicakco na wiyuskinyan He Sapa el unpi kta."
Translation: "This memorial to justice and democracy now invites American Indians to celebrate and teach their culture here in the heart of the He Sapa, place of the black cedar."
Baker, a member of North Dakota's Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, said he hopes the national attraction can become a place to help heal wounds stemming from the country's violent history with American Indians.
"America is full of all kinds of stories, both extremely good and extremely bad. And I think it's one of our responsibilities to give as much of that as we possibly can — not to make people feel guilty or angry or anything else, but to understand the history of this place," he said.
Rushmore officials had kicked around the idea for a self-guided audio tour for years. Presidential Tours led by a single ranger often draw as many as 250 followers during the peak season, said Debbie Ketel, publications manager for the Mount Rushmore Historical Society.
The goal was to not only memorialize the four presidents on the mountain and talk about creating the sculpture, but to widen the scope of interpretation and education to include the natural and cultural resources of the area, said Judy Olson, the monument's chief of interpretation.
For $5, visitors can rent an audio wand and embark on the 29-station walking tour in English, Spanish, German or Lakota.
Olson said Rushmore visitors often ask about Indian views of the monument and the Black Hills, and the audio tour gives rangers another tool to share that side of the story.
"It's one story we had never really told, so I think people are overwhelmingly positive about the whole thing," Olson said.
Baker acknowledges that not everyone will understand what's being said in the Lakota translation — as a Mandan-Hidatsa even he doesn't — but he expects people will listen out of curiosity.
"Lakota's a beautiful language," he said.