Maya Eagle has a message for President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and their supporters: “You are not welcome here.”
Eagle, Oglala Lakota, plans to protest Trump’s scheduled stop Friday to her peoples’ sacred He Sapa, or Black Hills, as part of South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore fireworks event. Eagle and others will be protesting that afternoon in Keystone, a small resort town along Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The Lakota also refer to the Black Hills as Paha Sapa.
“The Black Hills are the heart of everything that lives and breathes,” she said. “The Black Hills are supposed to bring positivity, strength and wisdom. These two men (Trump and Pence) bring the complete opposite. He Sapa are sacred, and they should be treated as such.”
The July 3 visit is one of Trump’s few public appearances since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country earlier this year and as deaths from the coronavirus pass 125,000. The visit also comes as Trump seeks a second term in November.
Park officials set up an online lottery system in early June for access to around 7,500 people. Only those with awarded tickets will have park access during Trump’s visit.
The event will include the first fireworks display at the 79-year-old stone memorial since 2009.
(Related opinion: Trump must respect sovereignty when he visits Mt. Rushmore on July 3)
Mount Rushmore is considered a national memorial by the National Park Service and is the state’s prized tourist destination, attracting nearly 3 million visitors each year. The faces of U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were carved into the mountain by sculptor Gutzon Borglum in a more than decade-long project that started in the 1920s.
The memorial tells the “story of the birth, growth, development and preservation of this country,” reads information about the memorial on the park website.
That’s one perspective and the one often taught in America.
Another is a history long before White settlers. The mountain is known as Six Grandfathers to the Lakota, and He Sapa was never meant to be desecrated. Other tribes like the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Omaha also have history in the Black Hills and surrounding areas.
The Black Hills are part of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and the country’s highest court ordered compensation in the millions of dollars to the Lakota for the illegal seizure of the Black Hills, an offer the Lakota have refused for decades. They instead want the Black Hills returned to tribal authority.
Mount Rushmore has also been included in a national discussion about the removal of controversial monuments and statues. Each president carved into the mountain has a past that affected Black and Native people, including Lincoln’s backing of hanging 38 Dakota men in Minnesota. And the sculptor, Borglum, had ties to the Ku Klux Klan, according to a report by the Smithsonian Magazine.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican and Trump supporter, issued a lengthy statement on Facebook this week, saying the men "honored on Mount Rushmore weren’t perfect; nobody is."
"They all had flaws. But they all had tremendous virtues as well, and they did incredible things for our country.”
Noem also said removal of the presidents won’t happen, “not on my watch.”
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Fraizer issued a strongly worded statement this week on the removal of presidents from the Black Hills. His post on Twitter had more than 6,000 interactions as of Wednesday.
“Visitors look upon the faces of those presidents and extoll the virtues that they believe make America the country it is today,” Frazier said.
“Lakota see the faces of the men who lied, cheated and murdered innocent people whose only crime was living on the land they wanted to steal.”
He added this “brand on our flesh” must be removed, and “I am willing to do it free of charge to the United States, by myself if I must.”
Protesting in the age of COVID-19
South Dakota is one of the few states that have not implemented stay-at-home orders, and Noem left most coronavirus-related decisions to city or town officials. The latest state health department figures list 6,826 positive cases, with 5,933 recoveries and 93 deaths.
In Pennington County, home to Mount Rushmore, 523 positive cases have been reported.
Noem said the Mount Rushmore event will not require social distancing practices or masks, although masks will be given to those requesting one, according to a report by NBC News.
Laura Ten Fingers, Olgala Lakota, plans on protesting along with Eagle in Keystone. Both are part of the Seventh Generation Collective, a group dedicated to uplifting Black, Indigenous, people of color voices. Both live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Ten Fingers, Oglala Lakota, said participants will be encouraged to wear face coverings and regularly wash their hands or use hand sanitizer. The group will provide sanitizer and masks, she said. As of Wednesday, 60 people have said they are planning to go to the protest, while another 260 are interested, according to the group’s Facebook page.
Ten Fingers said she is protesting to show Trump “we are still here.”
Mount Rushmore is about 25 miles southwest of Rapid City, the state’s second-largest city, and about 40 miles west of the Pine Ridge Reservation border, the closest reservation.
Tribes in South Dakota have implemented coronavirus-related restrictions that include stay-at-home orders, curfews and road checkpoints. Restrictions vary by tribe.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe implemented a travel permit application to better monitor where residents visit off the reservation. A permit isn’t required to leave the reservation but helps at checkpoints when returning.
“Whatever our tribal members want to do, we support them fully and everything they want to do on and off the reservation,” tribal spokesman Remi Bald Eagle said. “We just ask that they take the proper precautions so that while they’re out doing good they don’t end up bringing back bad.”
Six positive cases have been reported by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe on the reservation. The Oglala Sioux Tribe has reported 79 positive cases and one death as of June 30.
Former Oglala Sioux Tribe president and Vietnam veteran Bryan Brewer said a group of veterans has been meeting on the reservation regularly and plans to assist with the tribe’s checkpoints over the holiday weekend. He said he’s hearing of white supremacy groups coming to the Black Hills for Trump’s visit.
“We are not worried about Trump,” he said. “It’s all of his followers.”
Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker
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