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Lakota Gather Peacefully at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, But Still Insist that the Black Hills Belong to Them


The Lakota insist that the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore National Memorial belong to them. Photo by Jim Bower via Wikipedia.

In 1970, Indians led by United Native Americans (UNA) organizers occupied South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore National Memorial for more than a week and asserted the right of the Lakota (a Sioux tribe) to reclaim the Black Hills. On August 29, the 38th anniversary of the occupation’s onset, a small group of Lakota peacefully gathered at the memorial’s amphitheater to share cultural experiences and commemorate the historic event.

The historical roots of Native American displeasure with Black Hills developments like the Mount Rushmore National Memorial run very deep. The Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota were sacred to the Lakota and other plains Indians long before rapid economic exploitation of this landscape got underway with the gold rush of the 1870s.

It is highly germane that this incursion was illegal, and that Indians were wantonly killed or driven from land that had been treaty-promised to them in perpetuity. The Indian viewpoint is now, and for over a century has been, that the Black Hills were stolen and should be returned to the Lakota. (The UNA website link provided above portrays this viewpoint quite stridently.)

In the 1960s and 1970s, some Native American groups became quite confrontational as they asserted perceived rights to reclaim lands taken long ago by chicanery or outright theft that was condoned (if not sanctioned) by the state and federal governments. Primarily to get media attention and perhaps sway public opinion to their side, Indian groups held demonstrations at various state- and federally-owned sites. Some sites, including a few national parks or parks-to-be, were even occupied for a time. Among these were Alcatraz Island (occupied for 18 months in 1969-1970 and now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area) and the Mount Rushmore Memorial (occupied for 10 days in 1978).

Many of us older folks have vivid memories of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which was responsible for the 1972 seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, DC, and 1973’s 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee, a historically-significant town on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This latter incident, a particularly ugly one, led to some shootings and several deaths.

Native Americans and Native Hawaiians have recently begun to reassert more often and more vigorously their tribal or ethnic claims to various national park lands as well as their desire for more respectful treatment of their cultural history in park exhibits, programs, and other features (including park names). Regular readers of Traveler will recall that we’ve recently reported on native people issues at Badlands National Park, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Haleakala National Park, and Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.

Lakota culture is already on display at Mount Rushmore five days a week at Heritage Village, a cluster of three tipis off the Presidential Trail walkway. Native Americans work there as cultural interpreters, practicing traditional arts and answering questions about Indian history and culture. community. The park's superintendent (himself a Native American) has taken some heat from critics who believe that the Indian exhibit at Mount Rushmore is inappropriate and provocative.

Event anniversaries of special significance offer tribes or Indian organizations opportunities to gather at meaningful places to share cultural experiences, express solidarity, and draw public attention to their continuing claims for land restoration and more respectful treatment. This past Friday, August 29, was just such an occasion.

On that date, a United Native Americans-sponsored contingent staged a small, brief, and peaceful gathering in the amphitheater at Mount Rushmore to commemorate the UNA occupation of the memorial in 1970. Exercising his First Amendment rights, Quanah Parker Brightman, whose father Lehman Brightman (a Lakota) organized the occupation in 1970, had obtained a permit for the event. The gathering drew about 30 Indians, lasted four hours, and featured some speeches, ceremonies, and special musical performances.

Lehman Brightman himself was among the speakers. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with his Vietnam-era rhetoric, this is a man who, while a Ph.D. student at Berkeley in 1970, had this to say to a Time magazine reporter:

"It's time that Indians got off their goddam asses and stopped letting white people lead them around by their noses…….Even the name Indian is not ours. It was given to us by some dumb honky who got lost and thought he'd landed in India."

Get the picture?

Acting Chief Ranger Mark Gorman reported that the UNA-sponsored event at Mount Rushmore did not disrupt park operations or interfere with normal visitor activities.

As far as the Lakota and their supporters are concerned, whether this gathering and similar events will have a long term impact on Mount Rushmore’s management – and perhaps its ownership? – remains very much an open question. Should it be?


You'll be hard pressed to find one treaty that the US goverment has honored in the past 200 years with ANY Native American tribe, regardless of content and motivation. This country was "settled" by homesteaders in the name of Eminent Domain, with little or actually no regard for peoples already in place across the land. And ever since that expansion the rights, property and even some of the people themselves have been literally stolen by consent of those empowered in Washington. I guess being a thief never goes out of style, politically speaking.

It's a bit after the fact, but what would the current reaction in the world community be to, say, our government backing away from signed agreements with the G8, UN, OPEC, and the like? Oh wait a minute, we haven't paid UN dues for decades, or supported their "peace keeping" efforts, beyond that is, our rhetoric. And we're on record as saying that OTHER nations should lead the movement to reduce fossil fuel emissions, on the grounds that we are currently lacking the internal mechanisms to do so "economically". And here I thought the world-wide disdain for our citizenry was unjustified. My bad.

I recommend that we give the land back -- to whoever the Indians took it from.

When are we going to finally come to terms with the reality of US history? This constant denial of the aggressive history inflicted on Native Americans, which includes early attempts at biological warfare, genocide, stealing, lying, cheating and rape of a once pristine land; impedes our progress and relations more than any other single factor, in my opinion. This country is stuck. Truth, acceptance of reality and amends is what a responsible, intelligent government practices; how long is the US going to look the other way (perhaps it continues to do so because many of the above horrors are still in practice by the US today.) Total amends may never be possible, alcoholism, the disease of greed and the complete disregard for nature is rampant now. However, an attempt to face the truth about the errors of the humans who arrived from Europe and began their outrageous Eminent Domain may at least heal some of the deep wounds that ALL the people of this land suffer whether they are conscious of this or not. I think the Mt. Rushmore Monument is a hideous reminder of the numerous crimes committed against the natural world and Native Americans. The US's huge adolescent ego must surrender to wisdom or our continued demise is almost certain.

Recommended reading: Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. Very moving and well written book.

I recently visited Mount Rushmore, and it was moving in all the ways one would expect. However knowing its history and the history of American Indians, particularly in the Dakotas, it is hard to feel at peace with the atrocities our government has committed in order to obtain Paha Sapa- it amounts to nothing short of genocide.

I have been to the Black Hills a number of times, and I cherish it's beauty. We have it as a result of a grave injustice. That is the truth of it. Is there not some way to share administration / responsibility for that area to acknowledge the Lakotas spiritual heritage and hold that land in trust as the treasure that it is. Restrictions on some areas or holy times. Showing some respect to them.and their culture. The pages of history are written in blood, but maybe we can edit them with peace and honor.

I read this site all the time. You do a good job of keeping people informed.

Damn right the Black Hills belong to the great Lakota Nation...without a doubt! Plus, Custer had it coming with those giant mosquito sticks. My dear white mother was born in the Dakota's in the early 1900's and testifies about the horrible brutality that the Lakota's suffered under. Slow cruel systematic genocide mark with grave indifference by many Americans during that period. The terrible winters were especially cruel and bitter which decimated much of the Lakota Nation. The sacred land of the Black Hills in part is the soul of the Lakota Nation and will always be. Long live AIM!

The U.S. doesn't really have to give the Indians anything. This has been proven historically, to everyone's satisfaction. It does not have to accord them human rights, and it does not have to honor treaties it signed with them. It has violated both, and gotten away with it.

However, the U.S. and it's citizens do have an epochal opportunity, to rise to a standard of behavior that is more in keeping with the self-image to which they would like to become accustomed. By doing something right in those situations where possibilities still offer themselves, we could do ourselves a huge favor. We could make a step in the direction of becoming what we like to think we are, but in fact are not.

Don't think of it as an Indian-issue. Think about the better principles that form the foundations of your country. Think about the core values that guide your personal life.

Looking at it that way makes it pretty simple, really; we will all be much better off, following through on what our principles & values tell us is right.

Whatever it costs us will be repaid over & over, forever, in a coin that never depreciates.

Perhaps we oughta tear up the treaty and re-commission the Calvary. Then finish the job.

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