This story was written by Estella Claymore and is copyright Native Sun News.
RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA — “After 34 years of working for the National Parks Service, it really was time for a change,” said Gerard Baker, Mandan-Hidatsa, former superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Baker officially retired from NPS on July 3.
He said that his health was the main issue for retiring, only 2.5 months after being appointed to the new position of assistant director for American Indian Relations at the National Parks Service.
“What I started getting back were symptoms of my stroke again. I didn’t want to have another stroke,” said Baker.
“I was in Washington D.C. and I started doing a lot. I was traveling a lot, which is what I love to do. I love to travel. I love to talk to people. I love having challenges and I love solving problems, if I can do that,” he said. “But it immediately caught up with me. I started getting headaches back and I thought ‘I don’t want this, it’s time to do something else.’”
That something else includes “kicking back” and enjoying retirement first; then Baker has “no real plans,” he told Native Sun News.
“I definitely want to stay involved in American Indian issues because that’s what I have done my entire career; and stay involved with youth, if at all possible, and I will,” he said.
“I used to own buffalo at one time in my life. I want to do that again. I grew up ranching on a reservation ranch on the Fort Berthold (Indian) Reservation. That’s all I knew was ranching -- breaking horses and chasing cows, and then I went to school, said Baker.
“I have always been involved in my traditions and my traditions from a Mandan-Hidatsa standpoint are agriculture, so I got a lot of the native seeds that we used to grow before Lewis and Clark actually came,” he said. “So I got a lot of seeds; I want to continue to do that, but at the same time, I want to continue to teach, if at all possible, the Native youth and non-Native youth … to work together. I got no real plans yet.”
Looking back, Baker’s career was full of changes and some opposition.
“Mount Rushmore is always political,” said Baker.
“There were some things here that I tried to fix. I had heard recommendations that they should never have had an American Indian as superintendant here. I heard that when I first got here,” he said. “Supposedly, our support groups were upset because I did bring American Indian issues into Mount Rushmore.”
Despite the criticism, Baker stands firm.
“I have always been involved with politics no matter what I have done. The politics I try to get involved with is to change people,” he said. “There were a lot of letters that I saw in other papers that said I don’t belong there, that the ‘Indian stuff’ belongs at Crazy Horse Mountain. I still absolutely disagree with that. As American Indians, this was our land and people need to understand that.”
One of Baker’s main goals in his career was to help.
“As an American Indian, I tried to help out my own people. Not only my own tribes but also the tribes down here (in South Dakota) in giving the young an example of what they can do. I think that is my biggest testimony to my job – to show the young American Indian people that they can do this,” said Baker.
“That they can go to school, get a degree. That they can not only work in national parks but run national parks. And that’s where we should be. I’m hoping, one of these days, that our children or grandchildren should never have to hear what some of us hear (the negativity). It’s on both sides of the fence. I am hoping that my career made that a little better on both sides of the fence. It takes everybody to support that,” he said.
“The politics were there but the politics did not run me off. People in their letters did not run me off. I don’t consider myself being run off from the parks service. I consider it being a very successful career,” he said. “Especially when people know that I started out cleaning toilets and then became superintendent of some of the best parks in the nation -- Lewis and Clark, Little Big Horn Battlefield, where I was met with prejudice, Mount Rushmore, where I was met with prejudice; but I didn’t let that stop me.”
Although he said that nothing is set in stone yet, Baker does have this to say about his future.
“I will be working with Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan … a lot coming up. Ken Burns is a filmmaker. He made the national parks film -- the Lewis and Clark film -- which I was involved in, so I will stay on with that,” Baker said. “I’m going to stay on a lecture program. I do a lot of programs around the states. The ones I got coming up now are going to be in West Virginia and North Carolina, then here locally as well.”
He said it will be “just me talking about national parks, my experiences. I’ll be talking about the absolute truth; about what has been going on when it comes to American Indian issues and national parks and their support and opposition.”
Baker said he has a number of invitations to speak in “different places, including Europe, because of the programs he has supervised.
“I’ll be talking about American Indians; talking about the changes and what I will talk about is the positive things,” he said. “ But I will also talk about the reality, which is sometimes negative in Indian country and in non-Indian country. People need to understand what people are saying and why they are saying it.”
Again, Baker references young American Indians.
“The way we educate ourselves is the way we educate our young people. We don’t want to tell them all the bad stuff, but they need to know their history. They need to know the past in order to improve the future,” he said.
“I have been getting a lot of calls from editors and publishers about writing something. I have done a lot of things in my career -- from working on the first oil spill in Alaska to being a firefighter, being in law enforcement, being undercover,” Baker said.
“My first plan was to write a history for my grandkids and for my family. I think I come from a very unique situation, where I can remember growing up in a block house with no electricity and no running water,” he said. “Not many people can say that anymore. The outside world can’t say that they still talk to their grandparents; we can because those were the people who raised us.”
Meanwhile, Baker mused some about his life.
”For a long time I used to always tell myself: ‘Oh, I’ll never write anything. I don’t want to do that.’ But I do, now that I think about it,” he said. “There are not many Indian people out there who have led this kind of life. Some have. I have a lot of mentors like Daryl Cook, who’s a retired superintendent from Pine Ridge. He was a good mentor of mine.
Baker said other mentors were non-Indians from Marty Yacht to Jack Nichols.
“I have a lot of stories. I have worked rescues, some heavy-duty law enforcement, undercover. For nine years, I watched buffalo and rode horseback, chasing them. Spending a lot of my life on horseback you tend to think a lot,” he said.
Baker said that some of his lectures will be this fall. He said he will be headed to the Carolinas, then to Virginia, where he will be talking to the Bureau of Land Management and working with tribes and their governments.
“First, I’m doing one for the Boy Scouts of America at Crazy Horse on July 29-30, so I will be talking with the boy scouts, talking with them about what they are doing and what the American Indians are doing,” he said.
“I want to personally thank all the American Indians in South Dakota. I really do, especially the elders,” he said.
“I work with all the elders. There are some I’m going to go see yet. They want me to come down and I will. They’ve been absolutely fantastic,” he said. “They could have said ‘No, I want nothing to do with Mount Rushmore,’ but they didn’t. They see the need to educate. Elders are my favorite folks. They really are – on all the reservations. I just want to thank them personally.”
Baker’s not-so-retired at mid-career.
“I’m not sure what my plans are yet. I’m just looking,” he said. “I’m in no rush, but I’m not done yet. I’ve only lived half a life, and I’m not done yet.”
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Gerard Baker named to National Park Service Indian post