This Date in Native History: Natives Occupy Mount Rushmore

Alysa Landry

United Native Americans occupy Mount Rushmore over treaty rights

Near dusk on August 29, 1970, a group of Native Americans ascended Mount Rushmore and set up camp behind the heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Led by United Native Americans, a San Francisco-based group established in 1968 to promote Natives’ general welfare, 23 young activists made the initial, 3,000-foot climb to the top of the national monument. The occupation lasted for several months and was orchestrated to protest the broken Treaty of Fort Laramie, in which the United States in 1868 had granted the Sioux rights to all land in South Dakota west of the Missouri River.

That included Mount Rushmore, a batholith that sports the 60-foot-high faces of four prominent U.S. presidents, and the surrounding Black Hills. Protesters renamed the monument “Crazy Horse Mountain” and shouted slogans from the top of the mountain, CBS News reported on Sept. 2, 1970.

Indians set up camp “against federal regulations,” CBS correspondent Ike Pappas reported. “They claim the hills of South Dakota are legally theirs by treaty, and they have come to take them back.”

Three times per day, supporters climbed the mountain to deliver supplies to the Indian camp as protesters waited for a response from Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, Pappas said. “To dramatize their protest, the Indians perch on a ledge and shout slogans to the tourists below.”

Among the protesters was Lehman Brightman, an outspoken activist and president of United Native Americans, who helped organize the occupation at the behest of local Sioux people. Brightman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, was speaking at the National Indian Education Conference in Minneapolis when he learned of the protest. He chartered a bus and made the 600-mile journey to Mount Rushmore with a group of students.

“The federal government said this land would belong to us as long as the grass grows and the water flows and the sun shines,” Brightman told CBS News. “Then six years later, they sent Gen. Custer into this area on an expedition and they discovered gold here in the Black Hills. Then they turned around and took this land from us.”

Brightman called the protest a “breeding ground” for “new warriors” ready to fight for land that was rightfully theirs.

“We’re sick and tired of sitting back and turning the other cheek, and then bending over and getting those other two kicked,” he told CBS News. “You’re going to see some wide-awake, educated Indians. …You’re going to see a lot of spark.”

In the same news segment, Wallace McCaw, then president of Mount Rushmore National Monument, said the question of ownership was still unresolved.

“They say they have a right to the land,” McCaw said of the protestors. “It’s never been finally determined in the courts or by the means that are open. Who does own the land? It’s still in litigation.”

The mountain, traditionally known to the Sioux as Six Grandfathers, was renamed Mount Rushmore in 1885. Backed by Congress and federal funding, work on the massive carvings spanned 14 years, from 1927 to 1941.

But even today, ownership of the Black Hills—and of Mount Rushmore—remains in dispute. McCaw admitted that during the 1970 occupation.

“There’s a 50-percent chance that (the Natives are) right, that it is theirs,” he told CBS News. “That does give them, possibly, a little more right than you or I have.”

The original protesters sewed three bedsheets together into a makeshift flag, said Brightman’s son, Quanah Parker Brightman. They used red paint to scrawl the slogan “Sioux Indian Power” on the flag and then draped it over the monument.

After 10 days, the original protesters—mostly students—had to return to school, Quanah Brightman said. But by then, the movement had caught on.

“Indian people from across South Dakota were visiting the mountain,” he said. “A lot of people helped occupy, brought supplies and food and participated in prayer vigils for the return of the land.”

The occupation, which ended in November 1970 when severe winter weather forced Natives to withdraw, is billed as the first Indian uprising in South Dakota since the Sioux defeated Gen. George Armstrong Custer in 1876.

Seven months later, in June 1971, Indian activists again took over Mount Rushmore. Protesters occupied the mountain for 12 hours, demanding that the government honor its treaty promises. Twenty protestors were arrested.