SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – As President Donald Trump prepares to visit Mount Rushmore next week, a South Dakota tribal president is preparing a memo of disapproval.
Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner says the president failed to consult with tribal leaders about the visit to the Black Hills, which the Sioux consider part of their Great Sioux Reservation, land that was never ceded to the United States. Bear Runner said Trump's visit requited government-to-government consultation between the tribes and the federal government.
And one other thing: Bear Runner thinks Mount Rushmore should come down.
"I don't believe it should be blown up, because it would cause more damage to the land," he said, noting that Indian artifacts could be damaged. But there are other methods to take down the monument that would have less environmental impact.
"I agree," he said. "Removed but not blown up."
His comments come amid a wave of statues of historical figures that have been torn down following protests of racial injustice. Some have criticized the destruction, which they say has largely come at the hands of unchecked mobs as opposed to deliberative decisions by elected leaders. However, in some cities and states, government officials have led the statues' removals.
Protesters initially targeted statues of Confederate leaders but have expanded to leaders of the Union as well as pre-Civil War figures.
When some suggested that Mount Rushmore might be next, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, tweeted, “Not on my watch.”
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Mount Rushmore carries special significance for Great Plains Indians: It depicts the faces of four white American leaders who presided over the founding and expansion of European descended ancestors throughout the United States. It was built on land that the tribes still claim ownership to via treaty with the United States.
Bear Runner said the monument was built without any consultation or approval from Sioux leaders of that era.
“To me, it’s a great sign of disrespect,” he said.
Into this comes the July 3 fireworks display and Trump, who has been criticized for disparaging minorities. Several groups led by Native American activists are planning protests for the visit.
"I'm not really happy that he's coming to pollute our Black Hills," said state Rep. Shawn Bordeaux, a Democrat and the chair of the State-Tribal Relations Committee and a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
Mount Rushmore was created to draw tourism to South Dakota and its carving took place between 1927 and 1941. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum intended for Mount Rushmore to stand for America's greatness, and it's referred to as the Shrine of Democracy. However, stories in recent years have highlighted Borglum's ties to white supremacy, possibly joining the Ku Klux Klan, his Confederate sculpture funded by the KKK and that the tribes have argued for generations that the land was stolen from them.
“Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy, of structural racism that’s still alive and well in society today,” said Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and the president of a local activist organization called NDN Collective. “It’s an injustice to actively steal Indigenous people’s land then carve the white faces of the conquerors who committed genocide.”
The Lakota know the mountain into which Mount Rushmore is carved as the Six Grandfathers.
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The Lakota consider the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa in Lakota, to be the spiritual center of the Great Sioux Reservation where their culture began, and it was home to seven Lakota tribes.
The tribes were given the Black Hills in perpetuity in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. But miners seeking gold came into the area in an expedition led by Gen. George Custer in 1874. More miners encroached in the Hills once gold was found and demanded the U.S. Army's protection.
Although the Lakota and Northern Cheynne were victorious in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, by the following year, thousands of cavalrymen were deployed to the area and began what the Lakota called the "sell or starve" campaign: The Indian Appropriations Act of 1876 cut off all rations until the Lakota ended hostilities and ceded the Black Hills to the federal government. By the fall of 1877, the Lakota were under the control of federal agents on reservations, their land confiscated by the federal government under the Agreement of 1877.
Tribes have attempted to reclaim the Black Hills several times in recent decades.
The U.S. Court of Claims found in 1979 that the Sioux Nation was entitled to $17.1 million in compensation due to the federal government's seizure of the Black Hills. The following year, U.S. Supreme Court decided 8-1 that the federal government had violated the Fifth Amendment and the tribes were entitled to compensation in United State v. Sioux Nation of Indians. The tribes declined the compensation because it would legally end their demand for the Black Hills to be returned to them.
Several requests were denied in the early 1980s to return millions of acres of the Black Hills to the tribes, as well as bills in Congress that would have returned some of the land.
The effort to settle the land dispute was revived in 2009, and a United Nations report in 2012 said that Indigenous land, including the Black Hills, should be returned.
Tim Giago, a journalist who is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, said he doesn’t see four great American leaders when he looks at the monument, but instead four white men who either made racist remarks or initiated actions that removed Native Americans from their land.
Washington and Jefferson both held slaves. Lincoln, though he led the abolition of slavery, also approved the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota after a violent conflict with white settlers there. Roosevelt is reported to have said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are.”
The monument has long been a “Rorschach test," said John Taliaferro, author of “Great White Fathers,” a history of the monument. "All sorts of people can go there and see it in different ways.”
The monument often starts conversations on the paradox of American democracy — that a republic that promoted the ideals of freedom, determination and innovation also enslaved people and drove others from their land, he said.
“If we’re having this discussion today about what American democracy is, Mount Rushmore is really serving its purpose because that conversation goes on there,” he said. “Is it fragile? Is it permanent? Is it cracking somewhat?”
The monument was conceived in the 1920s as a tourist draw for the new fad in vacationing called the road trip. South Dakota historian Doane Robinson recruited Borglum, one of the preeminent sculptors at the time, to abandon his work creating the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in Georgia, which was to feature Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson.
Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, according to Mount Rushmore historian and writer Tom Griffith. Borglum joined the Klan to raise money for the Confederate memorial, and Griffith argues his allegiance was more practical than ideological. He left that project and instead spent years in South Dakota completing Mount Rushmore.
Native American activists have long staged protests at the site to raise awareness among the history of the Black Hills, which were taken from them despite treaties with the United States protecting the land. Fifty years ago this summer a group of activists associated with an organization called United Native Americans climbed to the top of the monument and occupied it.
Quanah Brightman, who now runs United Native Americans, said the activism in the 1970s grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He hopes a similar movement for Native Americans comes from the Black Lives Matter movement.
“What people find here is the story of America — it's multidimensional, it's complex,” Griffith said. “It’s important to understand it was people just trying to do right as best they knew it then.”
Contributing: The Associated Press