SIOUX FALLS, SD (AP) – President Donald Trump’s plans to kick off Independence Day with a flashy display on Mount Rushmore receive sharp criticism from Native Americans who see the monument as a desecration of land violently stolen from them and used to pay tribute to leaders hostile to natives.
Several groups led by Native American activists are planning protests for Trump’s July 3 visit, part of Trump’s “comeback” campaign for a nation sick with disease, unemployment, and, most recently, social unrest. The event is scheduled to feature jet fighters thundering over the 79-year-old stone monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the first fireworks display on the site since 2009.
But it comes amid a national reckoning on racism and a rethinking of the symbolism of monuments around the world. Many Native American activists say the Rushmore Memorial is as objectionable as the many Southern monuments toppled across the country.
“Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy, of structural racism that is still very much alive in society,” said Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and the president of a local activist organization called NDN Collective. “It is unjust to actively steal the land of the indigenous people and then cut the white faces of the conquerors who committed genocide.”
While some activists, such as Tilsen, want the monument removed altogether and the Black Hills return to the Lakota, others have called for a share in the region’s economic benefits and the tourists it attracts.
Trump has long shown a fascination with Mount Rushmore. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said in 2018 that he once told her with a straight face that his dream was to have his face carved into the monument. He later joked about a campaign collection about the anchoring of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. And while it was Noem, a Republican insisting on the eve of Independence Day for a return of the fireworks, Trump joined the effort and decided to visit South Dakota for the celebration.
The four faces, carved in the mountain with dynamite and exercises, are known as the ‘shrine to democracy’. The presidents were chosen by sculptor Gutzon Borglum for their leadership during four stages of American development: Washington led the birth of the nation; Jefferson caused his expansion to the west; Lincoln kept the union and the emancipated slaves; Roosevelt was in favor of industrial innovation.
And yet for many Native Americans, including the Lakota, Cheyenne, Omaha, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Kiowa-Apache, the monument is a desecration of the Black Hills, which they consider sacred. Lakota people know the area as Paha Sapa – “the heart of everything there is.”
With monuments to Southern and colonial leaders in U.S. cities removed, conservatives have expressed concern that Mount Rushmore might be next. Commentator Ben Shapiro suggested this week that the “Awakened Historical Revisionist Priesthood” wanted to blow up the monument. Call responded by tweeting, “Not on my watch.”
Tim Giago, a journalist who is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, said that he does not see four major American leaders when looking at the monument, but instead four white men who made racist comments or took actions that removed Native Americans from their country. Washington and Jefferson both had slaves. Lincoln, although leading the abolition of slavery, also approved the suspension of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota following a violent conflict with white settlers there. Roosevelt is said to have said, “I’m not going to go as far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe 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 starts 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 country, he said.
“If we have this discussion today about what American democracy is, Mount Rushmore really serves its purpose because that conversation continues there,” he said. “Is it fragile? Is it permanent? Is it cracking a bit? ‘
The monument was conceived in the 1920s as a tourist draw for the new holiday craze, the road trip. South Dakota historian Doane Robinson recruited Borglum, one of the foremost sculptors at the time, to discontinue his work and found the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in Georgia, which includes Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.
Borglum was a member of the Klu Klux Klan, according to Mount Rushmore historian and author Tom Griffith. Borglum joined the Klan to raise money for the Southern Memorial, and Griffith claims 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 held protests on the site to raise awareness about the history of the Black Hills, which has been taken away from them despite treaties with the United States protecting the country. 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 was born out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He hopes that a similar movement for Native Americans will come 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 that it was people who were just trying to do what they knew then.”
The White House had no immediate comment on criticism of the President’s planned visit.
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