Treaty defenders block road leading to Mount Rushmore

Treaty defenders demonstrate in Keystone, South Dakota, ahead of President Donald Trump's visit to the memorial Friday. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

Indian Country Today

Style note: Indian Country Today will refer to individuals defending the Black Hills as treaty defenders. The Black Hills, where Mount Rushmore is carved, are unceded territory in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and acknowledged by a 1980 Supreme Court ruling in the United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians.

Mary Annette Pember

Indian Country Today

More than 100 treaty defenders and other protesters gathered on a highway leading to Mount Rushmore on Friday ahead of President Donald Trump’s speech at the monument.

The group blocked the road, holding banners and chanting slogans such as “We can’t breathe” and proclaiming treaty rights. They carried signs with messages such as, “End 500 years of Genocide,” and “It’s a good day to do the right thing." 

At one point, Native women in ribbon skirts created a line across the highway, behind them members of NDN Collective, a nonprofit Native advocacy organization, parked white vans across the road and deflated the tires. Protesters later removed the wheels and climbed on top of the vans, shouting "Land back!" 

(Related: Lakotas to Donald Trump: ‘You are not welcome here’)

The gathering took place near a checkpoint at Highways 16/244 where ticket holders for Trump’s South Dakota event were being screened. Though the demonstration was largely peaceful, some treaty defenders got into heated exchanges with people driving to Mount Rushmore.

Native groups and other protesters block a highway leading to Mount Rushmore ahead of President Donald Trump's speech at the monument Friday, July 3, 2020. (Screenshot: NDN Collective via Facebook)
Protesters block a highway leading to Mount Rushmore ahead of President Donald Trump's speech at the monument Friday. (Screenshot: NDN Collective via Facebook)

Around 5 p.m. local time, law enforcement started telling defenders to vacate the area or face arrest, saying the blocking of traffic was an unlawful assembly. They directed them to head to a designated “free speech zone."

Law enforcement officers dressed in riot gear held shields and formed a line across the road, pushing up against a group of protesters. 

"We don’t need them to give us permission to do this on our land; we intend to stay here indefinitely throughout the night," said Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota, of NDN Collective. "Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy. When you carve out four white men who conducted genocide against Native people in this sacred place, it is fundamentally wrong."

Some people began to disperse but later returned, as the vans continued blocking the road. Law enforcement then brought in tow trucks to haul them away. 

Trump supporters standing behind and near the police line shouted at treaty defenders. A man claiming to be a veteran repeatedly offered his help to police.

After the vans were towed, a small group of treaty defenders continued blocking the highway, holding a large “#LandBack” banner.

At 7 p.m., police arrested them, using zipties to secure their hands behind their backs and leading them off the road. Trump supporters shouted accusations that the defenders were funded by George Soros, founder and chairman of Open Society Foundations and frequent target of right-wing conspiracy theorists.

About 15 people were arrested in all, The Associated Press reported. Tilsen was among them.

Several groups of Natives had planned to travel to the monument to voice their opposition to Trump’s visit, his policies that are seen as challenges to tribal sovereignty and the very presence of Mount Rushmore, which features faces of American presidents carved into a mountain held sacred by many tribes in the region.

Among those gathered at the highway Friday was Krystal Two Bulls, an Army veteran and founder of Voices of the Sacred, an organization aimed at empowering Native youth.

“We need to be bringing out the roots of what we’re talking about,” she said in a livestreamed video of the protest. “This country was founded on white supremecy,” including the genocide of Natives and slave labor of Black people.

“This is a major convergence that we’re seeing today,” said Two Bulls, Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne. “All these people standing together across the country.”

She was also among those arrested.

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 their illegal seizure, an offer the Lakota have refused for decades. They instead want the Black Hills returned to tribal authority.

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.

(Related: Eyes on South Dakota for Donald Trump event)

The South Dakota Department of Tourism created a lottery system allowing 7,500 people to attend Friday night's program, in which fireworks were scheduled to be set off at the monument for the first time since 2009. 

The 6 p.m. deadline for entry to the event passed with many cars still waiting to enter the memorial, though they eventually got through.

Earlier in the evening, Tilsen tried to negotiate with the National Park Service on the removal of treaty defenders and the vans parked in the middle of the road. 

"We ain't going nowhere," he said. "This is our land. This has been our land for thousands of years."

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Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.


Indian Country Today national correspondent Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, contributed to this report.

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Comments (20)
No. 1-9

My heart is with you. I have some sage burning now. I am praying now and asked All the ancestors to be watching.


How can they offer money to the tribes but claim any kind of jurisdiction? They clearly know they don’t have rights to it. Twisted Colonizer laws.


President Trump delivered a forceful inspiring speech to the American nation and the world , backed by the impressive monument of Mount Rushmore. The rest, as reported here, was lightweight and insignificant. Great fireworks. Great historical moment.


Orange Face is the dumbest not Great White Father. He knows NOTHING about Native American Indian history, especially of all the Plains Nations. He is ignorant about treaties and tribal histories. He doesn't even lead this country right. Money is is own concern. He is a businessman (albeit not the greatest either) and businessmen need not be involved in politics. I know more about Native American History and American History better than he does. His wife knows nada either. The entire family are so useless to society it's pathetic. They don't care about Native Americans or any other group that's not WHASP (white heterosexual anglo saxon protestant). There's so much to learn about the real history of the US and most of the schools indoctrinate students into a web of lies and deception and will not teach the truth as long as idiots such as Betsy De Vos ( The Fox in Dutch) and other conservative white right wing idiots are in power. South Dakota is a very racist and backwards state in regards to respecting and treating their first citizens and this horrible Kristi Noem as a governor proves it. William Janklow was another idiot that was involved in raping Native American girls during the 1970s and got away with it. He ended up dead years later and karma fixed him. I have never heard of a white South Dakota leader who really gave a damn about their first citizens and did something positive for them! Orange Face will face several obstacles before November and hopefully will not be elected because of the negative karma behind him. Nature always wins. As for the Lakota and other first citizens of the Plains I do sincerely hope you get the Paha Sapa and Mato Tipila returned, not the money but the entire area that was promised in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty but violated unfortunately. There are so many wrongs in this year that are yet to be righted. The US military and the US government need to right them for everyone. There will be peace eventually and it will take some time. We are in the awakening period. In Buddhism "Buddha" means enlightened or awakened person. Learning and realization are part of the 10 worlds in Buddhism. Hell, Hunger, Rapture are part of the lower ten worlds. Boddhisattva and Buddhahood (Nirvana in Sanskrit) are the top of the 10 worlds. The state of heaven is in the top world. These are conditions of being. There are similarities in the Medicine Wheel and the Chakra Wheel. The Chakras are basically 7 corresponding colors to major energy centers of the body and also relate to sounds and vibrations. The Medicine Wheel is a never ending circle of life and how we relate to the natural flow of time and space . The Sun and the moon are circular. It is also like a calendar. The Karma wheel also is a constant energy flow that lives within ourselves and no one can escape it. Trust me it has landed on me many many times. Karma itself means action whether positive or negative. You can commit a bad action many years ago and eventually it will catch up to you. Most likely the damage the US government had done in decades, centuries past towards the earth and its peoples will revert to itself and then correct itself. Right now it's working on correcting much of it today. We have protect our environment and our surroundings. It's not too late.


Well, since the Arikara were the first tribe to inhabit the Black Hills, it seems that they have a reasonable claim to the Black Hills. But they were forced out through bloody wars and were followed by the Crow, the Pawnee, then the Kiowa, and then Cheyenne, before the Lakota Sioux took it.

And then, there's the United States. Yes, the Black Hills was taken by the United States no differently than by any other tribe which took it from the previous occupants. Yes, by force. So to me, it belongs to the last nation who fought for it and won it. Yes, the United States.

The Lakota-Sioux arrived in the West after being on the losing end of a war with other tribes in Minnesota in the late 1700s. Known as the Lakota, or simply the Sioux, they waged genocidal war on other tribes before they took over the Black Hills from the Cheyenne. So let me say this again, they did the exact same thing that the United States did to drive the Lakota out.

What I find interesting is that the history of the Black Hills points to the fact that the Black Hills didn't belong to the Lakota in the first place. It is also interesting that there is a movement to try to return the Black Hills to the Lakota, yet they are not its first occupants. The Lakota are saying it belongs to them, but historically its longest occupants were the Arikara Indians. And even if they don't want it, there were other tribe after them who occupied it much longer than the 100 years or less that the Sioux had it.

Can you just imagine if the United States said they were only going to turn over the land to the original occupants, the Arikara Indians? Or how about to the Cheyenne? Can you imagine the uproar by the Lakota? I do find it hypocritical for the Lakota to make claim to the Black Hill, when they in fact took it over after a bloody war with the Cheyenne that ended in 1776. In reality, they did the exact same thing the United States did a hundred years later in 1876.

Americans should not accept the lie that is being perpetuated regarding some aspects of American History. Who the Black Hills "belongs" to is one of the great lies.

Whether we want to admit it or not, it is a fact that Indian tribes waged war and slaughtered each other routinely. Each time a tribe chased out an enemy tribe, the victors were were conquerors. They took over lands, crops, game, made slaves of those they defeated no differently then the Germans and French did for centuries.

As for Native Americans saying they were here first. Where's here? Since those different tribes were independent nations with their own cultures. languages, customs, religious beliefs, completely separate from other Indian nations, all having pushed each other out of lands by force, who are they to say that the they were here first. Being first is irrelevant when they are not the last one's standing after a battle. They proved that by waging war on each other to conquer lands.

Until the United States came along, the Lakota were only the most recent Indian nation to occupy the Black Hills after a horrible war. Fact is, so many separate tribal nations have waged all out war to get the Black Hills. In the end, the Lakota-Sioux nation lost the Black Hills to the another nation which is the United States.

If we look at the United States no differently than we do any other tribal nation, then the United States is the last tribe to conquer a tribe that was occupying the Black Hills. After all, warfare being warfare, the United States took the Black Hills in the exact same way as as the other tribes did. Through brutal war, the United States did the very same thing. The United States fought for it. The United States conquered it, really no different than the Sioux did against the Cheyenne.

The hypocrisy of the Sioux today is their being mad at the United States for doing exactly what their ancestors did to other Indian tribes. That's the definition of being hypocrites. Americans got the Black Hills after a long line of other tribes fought for it. So, like it or not, the United States is the last tribe, the last nation, to get the Black Hills.


I am a woman descended from European immigrants who settled in NJ.
I am one of many who detests this president, his followers and all they stand for.
The Black Hills are and should remain the land of the first Americans.
Just as other statues have been toppled, the faces of those not of the land - should be documented - for history, and then erased.
I still have hope for a better and more enlightened tomorrow for our grandchildren.


I have been wondering how the Supreme Court ruling in the Creek case will affect the Lakota claims under the Fort Laramie treaty. If the same logic applies, I understand that private land owners in the Black Hills would not lose their property rights, they would just be acknowledged as being located within the bounds of a reservation. But what about government actors? Can federal and state entities maintain claim to lands granted to a tribe(s) by treaty, if the treaty is adjudicated to be in force and required to be followed? Please tell me the can't!