by Brian Ward
Today Trump will have an Independence Day rally and fireworks show at Mt. Rushmore in He Sapa (the Black Hills). He Sapa is a sacred place to the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires, or the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota people (Sioux). Lakota leaders have sent a message to Trump that he is not welcomed on their land during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Indigenous people and that they view his visit as a continuation of the violation of treaties.
Millions of people visit Mt. Rushmore every year to celebrate the “Shrine to Democracy,” otherwise known as a “Shrine of Hypocrisy” by many Indigenous people. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Fraizer said, “Lakota see the faces of the men who lied, cheated and murdered innocent people whose only crime was living on the land they wanted to steal.”
Oglala Sioux president, Julian Bear Runner said “The lands on which that mountain is carved and the lands he’s about to visit belong to the Great Sioux nation under a treaty signed in 1851 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and I have to tell him he doesn’t have permission from its original sovereign owners to enter the territory at this time.”
After the discovery of gold and years of war and resistance the U.S. officially stole He Sapa from the Oceti Sakowin in 1877. This came on the tails of 1871, when Congress unilaterally discontinued the treaty process with Indigenous Nations. As settlers flooded the area and systematically stole Indigenous land via the Dawes Act of 1887, the US settler state decided He Sapa would be a perfect place for building a “Shrine to Democracy.”
Mt. Rushmore was set to feature the most famous and influential leaders of the US settler state, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. All four Presidents have Indigenous blood on their hands. Washington, who was a well known slave owner, was also called “town destroyer” by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy during conflicts prior to the revolutionary war. Jefferson, another well known slave owner, wanted an “empire of liberty.” He expanded the US with the Louisiana Purchase without care for the Indigenous population, setting up the landscape for the removal of Indigenous nations in the southeast. Lincoln oversaw the largest mass execution in US history with the hanging of 38 Dakota men following their uprising in 1862 and he expanded settler-friendly policy and removal during the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt expanded National Parks, which was viewed as a “nicer” way of displacing Indigenous people and stealing land in order to “conserve” the land and create space for white enjoyment.
This might be a brief history of the actions of presidents on Mt. Rushmore’s but what about the guy who designed it? The idea and construction began in 1927 and was completed in 1941. Mt. Rushmore was designed by Gutzon Borglum who was a well known racist and sympathizer, if not a member of the KKK. In one letter he expressed his racism toward Indigenous people writing, “I would not trust an Indian, off-hand, 9 out of 10, where I would not trust a white man 1 out of 10.” Putting more salt in the wound, the monument was named after wealthy investor and gold prospector from the Black Hills gold rush, Charles E. Rushmore.
The Oceti Sakowin always fought to get He Sapa back with the slogan, “The Black Hills are Not for Sale.” In 1971 twenty-three American Indian Movement protesters climbed to the top of Mt. Rushmore demanding that the U.S. government honor its treaty obligations. Following years of protest against uranium mining in the Black Hills and the growing Red Power movement, in 1980 the Supreme Court affirmed the fact that the US stole the Black Hills and they needed to pay Lakota for the land. The Lakota have continued to refuse the money because they want the land back. Since then bills in Congress that would transfer the Black Hills National Forest over to the Lakota have continued to fail.
On a clear day at the edge of the Pine Ridge reservation near Red Shirt Table you can see the faces looking right at you as a reminder that this land was stolen. All the time I spent on Pine Ridge Reservation I could never bring myself to go to Mt. Rushmore, I could only drive by and flip it off.
In anticipation of Trump’s visit, members of the West River Democratic Socialists plastered the word “Fat Taker” on all the presidential monuments in Rapid City. The Lakota word for “Fat Taker” is “wašíču,” as their Facebook post said, “used to describe settlers whom since the beginning of settler colonial violence, take the fat from an animal without sharing or giving back in return. This greed is also applied in settler exploitation of land, people, and resources through violence.” Trump is only the most recent of a series of Fat Takers.
As we talk about bringing down monuments that represent the racist history of the United States, Mt. Rushmore needs to be included in the conversation. Trump said, “We’re here to protect our national monuments,” and celebrate our heritage: this is the heritage of settler colonialism and the constant erasure of Indigenous people from history.
It’s time to give He Sapa back to the Oceti Sakowin.