At dawn on June 6, 1971, a group of Native Americans led by members of the American Indian Movement set up camp on top of Mount Rushmore to demand that the federal government honor the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which a century earlier had granted the Sioux rights to all land in South Dakota west of the Missouri River.
The group scaled the mountain, a national monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota carved with the 60-foot-high faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. The occupation was the second at Mount Rushmore, coming about 10 months after the American Indian Movement first gathered at the monument to protest broken treaty promises.
Protesters, armed with baseball bats, reached the top of the monument and erected a ceremonial altar behind Roosevelt’s head, Russell Means wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread. Park Service rangers warned them not to set up camp and called in the National Guard to surround the mountain.
Rangers hiked partway up the mountain to negotiate, Means wrote. Protesters, hiding among the rocks and bushes, responded, “We won’t come down unless you honor the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.”
“Talk about a naïve demand!” Means wrote. “Sure, all those white ranchers, miners, real-estate speculators, land developers, and owners of souvenir stands, restaurants, gift shops and motels—thousands of whites who lived in little towns—were going to leave the Black Hills just so we would come down off Mount Rushmore! But we had come to make a point. That was our mountain. The white man’s treaty had affirmed our ownership, and the white man’s law had promised to guarantee equal protection to all Americans.”
About 40 Natives ascended the monument, the top of which is about 50 feet above an observatory where millions of tourists annually view the presidents’ faces. Half of the protestors left before park rangers began making arrests, The New York Timesreported.
Wallace McCaw, then-superintendent of the memorial, sent 50 rangers and deputies to the top of the mountain after Indians refused to leave. Protesters occupied the monument for more than 12 hours, demanding that the government honor its treaty, that a federal gunnery range north of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation be returned to the Oglala Sioux, and that all concessions and enterprises at national parks or monuments be turned over to tribes.
Twenty Indians—nine men and 11 women—were arrested and charged with climbing the monument. Some of the protestors had to be carried down the mountain, The New York Times reported.
According to Means’ account, officers poked and punched protesters with rifle muzzles and billy clubs, then handcuffed them with their arms in front and prodded them to descend the mountain. Protesters responded by going limp, Means wrote.
“They shoved billy clubs between our cuffed arms and a policeman took each end of it and dragged us, face up, down the mountain,” he wrote. “The trouble was that there wasn’t a path. The way down—normally about a ten-minute jaunt—includes huge boulders that must be climbed or jumped. We said nothing and we did nothing to help our captors as they dragged us over rocks and twigs, anything they could find to rip us up.”
Protesters were booked at the Rapid City jail, where they faced misdemeanor trespassing charges, Means wrote. The prisoners were lined up while newspaper photographers shot pictures.
“It was like a scene from an old Western,” Means wrote. “The renegade desperadoes captured by the posse.”
Protesters demanded jury trials, Means wrote. In their defense, they cited the 1868 treaty, which affirmed the Black Hills as sacred land. The federal judge, a landowner in the Black Hills, recused himself and the charges eventually were dismissed.
A National Park Service spokesman at Mount Rushmore National Memorial acknowledged the American Indian Movement’s occupations of the monument in the early 1970s, but declined further comment.
“It was an illegal occupation,” Blaine Kortemeyer told ICMN. “The NPS has nothing additional to add.”