Trump’s Mount Rushmore rally represents centuries of Native American oppression

words by natalie michie

On July 3rd, the eve of Independence Day in America, over a dozen land defenders were forcibly removed and arrested at Black Hills near Mount Rushmore, just hours before Trump’s scheduled rally.

Indigenous people and allies protesting the rally blocked the highway leading to Mount Rushmore until the National Guard was brought in and many of the protestors were arrested for engaging in “unlawful assembly.”

Protestors gathering at the roadblock were peaceful, holding signs that read phrases like, “You are on stolen land,” and “Honor the treaties.”

The treaties they are referring to are century-old treaties from the American federal government that acknowledge the Black Hills are sovereign to the Great Sioux Nation, which are divided into two groups based on language dialects: the Dakota and the Lakota. The land where Mount Rushmore was carved belongs to the Great Sioux Nation under a treaty signed in 1851 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

Trump choosing to have a rally here is an intentional disregard for Indigenous sovereignty and a complete dismissal of supreme law, meant to protect Indigenous folks from these sorts of invasions. Like many Indigenous communities, the Sioux Nation has historically dealt with invaders on their land. In the 1870s, the US Army violently invaded the Black Hills to seize gold that was discovered in the area. What followed was decades of Indigenous resistance to colonists who actively disregarded these treaties and came to take possession of land that was not theirs. Settlers still inhabit that land today and these ongoing invasions have had long-lasting negative effects on Native Americans in South Dakota.

“We’ve been removed from our homes, and now some of the most impoverished places in the U.S. are Indigenous places of struggle and residence. In South Dakota, where I live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Indigenous people constitute less than 10 percent of the population but roughly half of those booked into the state’s jails,” writes Nick Tilson, president of the NDN collective, an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power. Tilson was one of the land defenders arrested on July 3rd.

In addition to high rates of incarceration, Indigenous folks living in Pine Ridge Reservation are facing severe economic and social disparities compared to their white counterparts in South Dakota. According to statistics from Re-Member, a nonprofit organization that works with the Oglala Lakota community, Pine Ridge is the poorest Native American Reservation in the United States; its residents suffer from lack of resources such as quality healthcare and education, among others.

In 1980, the US supreme court ruled that lands covered by the treaty had been taken from the Sioux illegally. Yet today these treaties are continuously ignored by the American government. Tilson says the Lakota people refuse to accept monetary reparations that were granted in this supreme court ruling because they “won’t settle for anything less than the full return of [their] lands as stipulated by the treaties [their] nations signed and agreed upon.”

(Willi White / NDN Collective)

Indigenous people were fully within their rights to demand that Trump not hold his event at Mount Rushmore. By ignoring their voices, he not only broke the law, but he also exacerbated the danger of an at-risk community.

In many areas of the United States, Native American people are far more likely to become infected with COVID-19 than white people. This is especially dangerous because Native Americans face significant inequity in access to quality healthcare compared to other Americans.

Julian Bear, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said in an interview with the Guardian: “Trump coming here is a safety concern, not just for my people inside and outside the reservation, but for people in the Great Plains. We have such limited resources in Black Hills, and we’re already seeing infections rising.”

Trump’s event attracted thousands of spectators who were not socially distancing or required to wear a mask. Bringing a group this large together on Sioux Nation territory in the middle of a pandemic shows Trump’s complete disregard for Native American livelihood.

Trump’s decision to hold this rally at Mount Rushmore could not come at a more relevant time. In the midst of a national debate on how to deal with statues and symbols that immortalize systemic racism, Mount Rushmore is perhaps the biggest American shrine symbolizing racism under the guise of a “democratic” landmark.

(Andrew Layman / Getty Images)

Indigenous people in America have long called for the removal of Mount Rushmore.

The sculptor of Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum, was blatantly racist and had close ties to the Klu Klux Klan. The fact that this was the man in charge of creating a monument meant to represent American democracy and patriotism is very telling of what democracy actually means in America, and who truly benefits from it.

Two of the men carved into that mountain are slave owners, and one approved the mass hangings of 38 Dakota men in the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. All of them are viewed by Native Americans as racist.

Trump has not responded to the protesters directly. However, in his speech that night, he was firm on his stance concerning Mount Rushmore, saying it is a monument of the “greatest Americans who have ever lived.” He assured his audience that: “This monument will never be desecrated… Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.”

The Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota people. Tilson explains, “I visit the Black Hills alongside many other Lakotas every year as part of a tradition we have maintained for thousands of years… They are a sacred place that I take my family and my children to, like the Vatican for Catholics or Mecca for Muslims. The hills are where I feel most connected to Creator.”

The Lakota people were clear with Trump that he didn’t have permission to be on their land. By holding his rally there, Trump endangered the vulnerable ecosystems, and brought thousands of people to congregate during a pandemic in which Indigenous people have been disproportionately affected.

Land defenders were demonstrating since 4 pm that day, singing chants like, “What do we do when our treaties are under attack? Stand up, fight back! What do we do when Donald Trump is on our land? Stand up, fight back!” Those who refused to disperse from blocking the road that leads to Mount Rushmore were met with police force such as pepper spray and tear gas. At around 7 pm, the remaining protestors were taken away in handcuffs.

How is it that Trump and thousands of his supporters can invade sacred Indigenous sovereign land, in the midst of a national health crisis, but those protesting this invasion are arrested, jailed and criminally charged?

These arrests fall in line with the widespread conversations surrounding abolishing the police and systems of governance in the US and around the world. The role police play in society is reflected in this situation; it is not to defend those in need of protection or even to defend the law, but to uphold and maintain the power of the state.

NDN collective has posted a statement about the Indigenous and allied land defenders who were arrested on July 3rd:

“Mount Rushmore is an active symbol of white supremacy and systematic racism. In comradery with our allies and standing as Indigenous people, we made a stand against Donald Trump, the President of the United States, who entered Oceti Sakowin Territory without the free prior and informed consent of the Tribal Nations in this region.”

The collective has set up a bail fund to aid those who were arrested and criminally charged. Please donate if you have the means to do so.

*UPDATE* Those arrested at this demonstration have been released.