SIOUX FALLS, SD – President Donald Trump’s plans to start Independence Day with an eye-catching display at Mount Rushmore are drawing strong criticism from Native Americans who view the monument as a desecration of violently stolen land and used to pay tribute to leaders hostile to native people.
Several groups led by Native American activists are planning protests over Trump’s July 3 visit, part of Trump’s “return” campaign for a nation reeling from disease, unemployment and, recently, social unrest. The event is slated to include fighter jets thundering over the 79-year-old stone monument in Black Hills, South Dakota, and the first fireworks display on the site since 2009.
But it comes amid a national trial of racism and a reconsideration of the symbolism of monuments around the world. Many Native American activists say the Rushmore memorial is as reprehensible as the many Confederate monuments that are crumbling across the country.
“Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy, of structural racism that is still alive and well in today’s society,” said Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and president of a local activist organization called the NDN Collective. “It is an injustice to actively steal the lands of indigenous peoples and then carve the white faces of the conquerors who committed genocide.”
While some activists, like Tilsen, want to see the monument removed entirely and Black Hills returned to Lakota, others have asked for a share in the region’s economic benefits and the tourists it attracts.
Trump has always shown a fascination with Mount Rushmore.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said in 2018 that he had once told him with a straight face that it was his dream to have his face carved into the monument. She later joked at a campaign rally about being consecrated alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. And while it was Noem, a Republican, who lobbied for the return of the fireworks on the eve of Independence Day, Trump joined the effort and pledged to visit South Dakota for the celebration.
The four faces, carved into the mountain with dynamite and drills, are known as the “sanctuary of democracy”. Presidents were chosen by sculptor Gutzon Borglum for his leadership during four phases of American development: Washington led the birth of the nation; Jefferson caused its expansion westward; Lincoln preserved the union and emancipated slaves; Roosevelt defended industrial innovation.
And yet, for many American Indians, including the Lakota, Cheyenne, Omaha, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Kiowa-Apache, the monument is a desecration of the Black Hills, which they consider sacred. The Lakota people know the area as Paha Sapa, “the heart of all that is.”
As monuments to Confederate and colonial leaders have been removed in American cities, conservatives have raised concerns that Mount Rushmore may be next. Commentator Ben Shapiro suggested this week that the “awakening of the historical revisionist priesthood” wanted to blow up the monument. Noem replied by tweeting, “Not on my watch.”
Tim Giago, a journalist who is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, said he does not see four great American leaders when looking at the monument, but four white men who made racist remarks or initiated actions that removed Native Americans from their land.
Washington and Jefferson had slaves. Lincoln, while leading the abolition of slavery, also approved the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota after a violent conflict with white settlers there. Roosevelt reportedly said, “I’m not going so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I think nine out of ten are …”
The monument has long been a “Rorschach test,” said John Taliaferro, author of “Great White Fathers,” a history of the monument. “All kinds of people can go there and see it in different ways.”
The monument often sparks conversations about the paradox of American democracy: that a republic that promoted the ideals of freedom, determination, and innovation also enslaved people and expelled others from their land, he said.
“If we have this discussion today about what American democracy is, Mount Rushmore is really serving its purpose because that conversation continues there,” he said. “Is it brittle? Is it permanent? Is it cracking a little?”
The monument was conceived in the 1920s as a tourist attraction for the new fashion on vacation called road trip. South Dakota historian Doane Robinson recruited Borglum, one of the preeminent sculptors of the time, to leave his job creating the Confederate Stone Mountain Monument in Georgia, which would feature Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall. Jackson.
Borglum was a member of the Klu 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 that his loyalty was more practical than ideological. He left that project and instead spent years in South Dakota completing Mount Rushmore.
Native American activists have long organized protests at the site to raise awareness of the Black Hills story, which was taken from them despite treaties with the United States that protect 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 heads United Native Americans, said activism in the 1970s stemmed from 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 history of the United States: it is multidimensional, it is complex,” Griffith said. “It is important to understand that people simply tried to do the right thing as best they knew then.”
The White House had no immediate comment on criticism of the president’s planned visit.