This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
On Friday, President Trump plans to attend a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore, located in the majestic Black Hills of South Dakota.
He was invited there by the state legislature, although Governor Kristi Noem, a vociferous Trump devotee, almost certainly played a role in organizing the much-hyped event. Before the legislature passed the resolution to welcome him, Trump said Noem had asked him to lift environmental restrictions meant to protect the Black Hills from the potential devastation an exorbitant pyrotechnics show could cause.
During an interview, the president said he could not believe environmental harm could be caused by fireworks because “it’s all stone.” In his typical fashion, characterized by an irrational, pernicious level of arrogance commingled with obliviousness and indifference, Trump fails to grasp or care that Mount Rushmore is in the middle of the Black Hills National Forest.
The last fireworks display at the monument was in 2009. The Trump administration’s Department of the Interior claims that an environmental assessment they performed concluded that such a show held this year would have “no significant impact.” Here’s hoping they’re right, lest Trump’s slash-and-burn politics manifest literally.
Even if a midsummer fireworks display in the middle of a national forest doesn’t spiral out of control and cause irreparable damage to a fragile, beloved ecosystem, the event’s organizers are holding this gathering in the midst of a pandemic unlike any humanity has experienced in over a century, in close proximity to Native communities who have been vocal about being vulnerable to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Back in April, two Lakota tribes, Cheyenne River and the Oglala, established lawful checkpoints on their lands to monitor traffic through their reservations in effort to protect residents from COVID-19 infection. Time has shown they were right to act swiftly. Natives are contracting and dying from the disease at disproportionate rates thanks to intergenerational poverty originating from broken treaties, lack of healthcare infrastructure, and pre-existing medical conditions.
It’s been an uphill battle for the Lakota. Noem refused to issue a stay-at-home order like the vast majority of governors did. She also demanded that the Oglala and Cheyenne River remove their checkpoints, threatening to sue them if they did not. She even wrote a letter to Trump, asking him to intervene. Now the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees law enforcement in Native Country, is saying it will defund its already underfunded police force unless checkpoints are removed. The Cheyenne River Sioux tribe has only eight hospital beds for thousands of people. Checkpoints appear to have been successful in thwarting an outbreak on the Cheyenne River Reservation. They’ve only had six known cases thus far. The legality of the checkpoints is being corroborated by the ACLU.
Now the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe is suing the Trump administration for threatening the security of their people over the checkpoints. Besides saying they could effectively dismantle the tribe’s police department, Trump officials insinuated that they would withhold congressionally provided COVID-19 relief funding from them as well. Two other Lakota Tribes, Rosebud and the Oglala, are supporting Cheyenne River’s lawsuit.
Regarding Trump’s Rushmore soiree, South Dakota officials appear to be thumbing their noses at Dr. Anthony Fauci and anyone who believes in science, seemingly attempting to “own the libs” by needlessly exposing their constituents to the novel coronavirus. Organizers of the event have have scrapped plans for social distancing, even though upward of 7,500 people may be in attendance. Jason Ravnsborg, South Dakota’s attorney general, tweeted gleefully that he’s looking forward to welcoming Trump, “#MasksNotRequired.”
As if that weren’t enough, the likelihood of an outbreak occurring because of the Rushmore event is even greater now. The Pennington County GOP held a convention in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota, on June 20, CDC guidelines and common sense be damned. A state leader who attended the in-person gathering has since tested positive for the virus, meaning others who were present were likely exposed. Pennington County is where Mount Rushmore is located.
Just as Team Trump tried to defile Juneteenth with its failed rally in Tulsa, it is choosing to hold this Mount Rushmore event at a time when Americans protesting police brutality have begun to tear down statues created in the likeness of white supremacist confederates and colonial figureheads who engaged in oppressing, enslaving, raping, and murdering Black and Indigenous people.
Notably, sculptures of Christopher Columbus—the genocidal slaver and horrendous navigator—were beheaded in Boston and toppled in Minnesota. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) who pulled down the Columbus statue in St. Paul “American Taliban.” What’s not well known is that AIM Twin Cities is credited with saving more than 20 businesses and nonprofits from destruction during widespread civil unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
Saints aren’t safe, either. Junípero Serra, a canonized Spanish priest who established missions throughout California, was involved in the forced labor, torture and murder of thousands of Natives. His image has fallen, too.
While millions of schoolchildren have been indoctrinated with mythic tales of the colonial founding fathers and the iconic imagery of Mount Rushmore, few know the truth of its origins.
Mount Rushmore itself is an act of vandalism. Its creator, Gutzon Borglum, the son of polygamist Mormons, was a white supremacist and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He carved the graven images of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln into a Lakota sacred site known since time immemorial as The Six Grandfathers. The Black Hills themselves rightfully belong to the Lakota people. They were promised Kȟe Sapa, the sacred Black Hills, in the Fort Laramie Treaty, a legally binding agreement between the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) and the U.S. government, which is still good law according to the Constitution. Even the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills were wrongfully taken from the Lakota after trespassing settlers “discovered” gold there.
Borglum readily admitted that Rushmore was a memorial to conquest. He said the purpose of the monument was “to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States.”
Social media users have begun calling Mount Rushmore, named after a capitalist gold miner, the “Final Boss,” because it is the ultimate colonial effigy. Both Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. Washington called for the extermination of Natives. Jefferson fathered children with an underage slave girl who was his wife’s half-sister. Roosevelt told Apache Chief Geronimo that Natives “have a bad heart” and was quoted as saying, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors, who did not receive due process, in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
Nick Tilsen, president of NDN Collective and a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, said, “It’s an injustice to actively steal indigenous people’s land then carve the white faces of the conquerors who committed genocide.” He wants Rushmore removed altogether. After alt-right commentator Ben Shapiro asked on Twitter whether someone will soon insist on blowing up the monument, Noem vehemently defended the site, responding, “Not on my watch.”
After Shapiro and Noem’s inflammatory exchange, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe declared his opposition to Trump’s visit, noting that Tribal leaders were not consulted about it beforehand, even though Mount Rushmore is sitting on unceded Lakota territory. While he doesn’t think the monument should be blown up, he would also like to see it removed. This event, held on the desecrated grounds of Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe (The Six Grandfathers) will only serve to endanger the Black Hills National Forest and its wildlife, spread contagion, sow hatred, promote division, and enforce Trump’s brand of authoritarian white nationalism. For Creator’s sake, cancel it.
Because Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe, the sacred site defaced by Borglum, belongs to the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) under natural law and through the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Lakota should decide the fate of Mt. Rushmore. But there is an opportunity for healing here. The descendants of settlers and those who broke the treaties can do the right thing. Listen to Native voices and return control of The Six Grandfathers to the Lakota people.
A new era has begun. Humanity is seeking truth. Hearts are ready. And in the West, many Americans want to work toward addressing and eliminating the vast inequities this country was built upon that have wounded and destroyed so many, often based on the color of their skin. If there’s anything we’ve been left with that speaks our better nature, it lies in the recognition of the space we’ve inherited where we might free ourselves from bondage, from every man-made concept that’s been conjured to divide, demean, dehumanize, and separate us from ourselves and each other. No one is free unless we are all free. Our ancestors are praying for us. They are with us now. Build anew. Treat the wound. Mend the hoop. We must rise, or we will fall.
Ruth Hopkins is a Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer and enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. She is also a biologist, tribal attorney, former judge, and co-founder of Lastrealindians.com. Hopkins resides on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota.