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“He Wasn’t Invited”: How Trump’s Racist Mt. Rushmore Celebration Violated Indigenous Sovereignty

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Amid ongoing protests against systemic racism and state violence, Trump attacked protesters, vowed to defend statues of colonizers and white supremacists, and ignored Indigenous sovereignty over the area, when he held an Independence Day rally at Mount Rushmore, sparking even more protests that led to 15 arrests. “The Black Hills, or what we know as He Sápa, is the cultural center of our universe as Lakota people,” says Indigenous scholar and activist Nick Estes, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico. “More than 50 different Indigenous nations actually have origin stories or ties or spiritual connections to the Black Hills.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As many marked this year’s Fourth of July weekend by staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19, President Donald Trump hosted two back-to-back events, in South Dakota and at the White House, over the weekend, where he stoked racial divisions, attacked Black Lives Matter protesters, defended statues of colonizers and white supremacists, and falsely claimed that 99% of coronavirus cases in the United States are, quote, “harmless.” Despite the warnings of public health officials and a U.S. death toll of nearly 130,000 — a quarter of the deaths in the world — few wore masks at both Trump events. At Mount Rushmore, a crowd of thousands did not socially distance.

At least 15 Indigenous activists and allies were arrested after blocking a highway heading to the rally. Mount Rushmore is a monument carved into the sacred Black Hills on unceded Lakota territory. It was designed by a sculptor with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. The president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe had ordered Trump to cancel Friday’s event.

This is President Trump addressing the crowd of thousands in front of Mount Rushmore Friday.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Make no mistake: This left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. … To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol and memory of our national heritage.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is President Trump speaking in Washington, D.C., Saturday, where he compared the, quote, “radical left” to Nazis.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing. … In every age, there have always been those who seek to lie about the past in order to gain power in the present. Those that are lying about our history, those who want us to be ashamed of who we are, are not interested in justice or in healing. Their goal is demolition. Our goal is not to destroy the greatest structure on Earth, what we have built.

AMY GOODMAN: The same day of Trump’s White House address, protesters in Baltimore, Maryland, pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus. They then dragged the statue several blocks and dumped it into the city’s harbor.

For more, we go to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we’re joined by Nick Estes, citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor Estes. It’s great to have you with us. Let’s talk about the significance of this moment that President Trump chose to seize on. July 3rd, in honor of Independence Day, he goes to Mount Rushmore, named for a gold speculator and New York attorney, designed by a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, even as leaders of Indigenous nations in the United States demanded he not come to the Black Hills. Talk about the significance of Mount Rushmore for Indigenous people, and that whole area.

NICK ESTES: Good morning, Amy.

Yes, this is a very kind of important history to talk about, because, as you mentioned in the news brief, the Black Hills, or what we know as He Sápa, is the cultural kind of like center of our universe as Lakota people, but more than 50 different Indigenous nations actually have origin stories or ties or spiritual connections to the Black Hills. And the Lakota people, as well as the Cheyenne and Arapaho people, when they signed the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, became the caretakers of that land.

And so, back in 1980, there was a Supreme Court decision that ruled that the Black Hills itself had been illegally taken from the Lakota Nation and that the Supreme Court itself could only reward a monetary compensation, because the courts can’t actually award land back to the tribes. And so, since 1980, the tribes have been refusing to accept money for — they can’t put a price tag on the Black Hills, so they’ve been refusing to accept money.

But at the same time, the Black Hills themselves has become a hot spot of the kind of cultural war that Trump is trying to stir up across the nation. For example, there are about 2 million visitors per year that go to Mount Rushmore. And with the kind of new guidelines about social distancing, we can see that this is only further exacerbating the COVID-19 pandemic and tribes’ responses to it. And so, when Trump announced that he was coming to this particular area, he wasn’t invited by the tribes. The tribes actually asked him to seek an invitation to respect their sovereignty. And if you listen to the audio clip, not once does he mention the fact that the tribes opposed his visit there. So, this is a very contentious issue for Lakota people.

AMY GOODMAN: All of the protesters who were arrested in South Dakota Friday have been released, except for Nick Tilsen, who we interviewed Friday, president of the NDN Collective and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, currently being held without bond. This is what he had to say on our broadcast.

NICK TILSEN: This is an act of violence and aggression against us, and it’s also pushing this falsehood narrative about American democracy, when we actually really should be uplifting the truths of what happened throughout history and how those truths are directly connected to the disparities that exist today in society amongst Indigenous people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Nick Tilsen, from an illustrious Indigenous family, his great-grandmother Meridel Le Sueur, his grandfather, his parents all deeply active in Indigenous rights activism, his parents leading a march that was one of the largest in the Black Hills region in the early ’80s. Only larger was what? The Ku Klux Klan march there in the 1920s. Do you have the latest news on Nick Tilsen and why he alone is continuing to be held, Nick Estes?

NICK ESTES: Yeah. So, first of all, the arrests that happened of those 15 people at the blockade, they were treaty defenders, right? So, when Trump is talking about erasing history, he’s actually suppressing history. The people who were arrested at this particular blockade were arrested because they were representing the true histories, right?

And so, Nick Tilsen was charged with several things. One of them is a serious charge. It’s a second-degree robbery charge, which in the state of South Dakota is a Class 4 felony, which is punishable up to 10 years in prison. He appears this morning in several hours, at about 10 a.m. Mountain Standard Time, before a judge. And it has yet to be seen whether or not Tilsen himself will be charged with the new riot boosting laws that Kristi Noem signed into law earlier this year, something that Nick himself has successfully sued the state of South Dakota over in the past, and the courts have sided with him, saying that it is a violation of First Amendment rights. The state went back and rewrote the laws. But now it’s a question about whether or not he’s going to be charged with these new riot boosting laws that were created and drafted in preparation for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, something that NDN Collective and Nick himself has been adamantly opposed to because it violates, again, the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, because it trespasses through the heart of our treaty lands and skirts around two major reservations, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe as well as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

So, it’s important to remember that already the state of South Dakota has one of the highest rates of incarceration of Native people. There are about 10% — we’re about 10% of the state’s population, but we make up about 30% of the jail population. And in a place like Pennington County, where Nick’s being held right now, I think it’s around 50 to 75% jail population are Native right now. So, this is more than just about his arrest at Mount Rushmore. It’s about a long-standing treaty claim. And I think Nick would agree with me on this, that this is about treaty rights. Right? He’s a treaty defender. And it’s unclear why all 15 other protesters were released, but not Nick himself.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to this history, because a number of people seem surprised by the whole history of Mount Rushmore, you know, having the four sculpted heads of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt blasted out of the ancient granite between 1927 and 1941 by 400 workers, directed by Gutzon Borglum. Earlier, he was recruited by the Daughters of the Confederacy to carve the huge Stone Mountain memorial to Confederate leaders in Georgia. He left that project in a dispute, but that allowed him to hone his mountain-carving skills, enabling the Rushmore monument. Borglum, close to the KKK, might even have been a member of the KKK. And this weekend also, the march on Stone Mountain by leaders demanding it be taken down. The connection between Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore, and who is carved into the ancient granite, Nick Estes, and what he means in Indigenous history — what they mean?

NICK ESTES: Right. So, it’s important to remember that Stone Mountain was a meeting place for the Ku Klux Klan. It’s actually where the Klan re-formed and reconstituted itself at a particular moment in time. So that site was chosen because of that particular significance.

And so, while there’s speculation about whether or not Gutzon Borglum himself was a member of the Klan, it’s not as important as the fact that, like, he’s creating these symbols at a time of Jim Crow segregation laws. So, when he comes to a place like the Black Hills, this is part of a larger kind of effort to intimidate and also to lay claim on the Black Hills in spite of these treaty claims, right?

So, if we look at the more recent history — so, for example, on June 25th, Dusty Johnson, who is a Republican congressman, introduced a bill to prevent the destruction of Mount Rushmore, the renaming of the mountain or the monument itself. But in that bill, it says nothing of the Fort Laramie Treaty, the very document that was signed in 1868 to protect the Black Hills for the Lakota people in perpetuity. And why would he — why would Dusty Johnson — you know, I’m a historian. There’s no coincidences in dates. Why would Dusty Johnson choose June 25th as the date that he introduces this bill to protect this symbol of white supremacy? Well, for Lakota people, for Cheyenne and Arapaho people, we celebrate June 25th as Victory Day, because in 1876 an alliance of Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho defeated Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, or the Battle of Greasy Grass.

And that was a victory that was kind of mounted against the United States right before it tried to celebrate its 100-year anniversary of signing of the Declaration of Independence, a document that was written by Thomas Jefferson, who’s one of the figures, who wrote in that document “merciless Indian savages” to describe Indigenous people. And it’s important to note that on that date that Trump read his speech at Mount Rushmore, he said, “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” We don’t think it’s coincidence that he used that language, the same language that Thomas Jefferson used.

It’s also important to note that George Washington was named town destroyer by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy for his scorched-earth campaigns against the Iroquois Nation prior to the Revolution, but also during the Revolutionary War itself.

Abraham Lincoln was responsible for multiple things, such as the passage of the Morrill Act, which created modern land-grant universities, that dispossessed — that used dispossessed Indigenous land to create the modern university system, as well as the 1862 Homestead Act, which carved out 270 million acres of Indigenous territory and basically gave it away for free to white families, and it categorically excluded, of course, Indigenous and Black folks, as well. But also he oversaw the 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota patriots in the state of Minnesota, as well as the Navajo Long Walk, which imprisoned Navajo people, as well as Apache people, at Bosque Redondo, and oversaw also the — you know, he was the commander-in-chief when the Colorado militias massacred the Cheyenne people at Sand Creek in 1864.

And then, lastly, you know, the bust of Teddy Roosevelt is incredibly important, because he’s kind seen as the father of the modern kind of conservation movement and the creation of national parks. Well, for this settler nation to enjoy nature, Indigenous people had to be removed from it. And so he carved out millions of acres in what we now know as the kind of national monuments, the natural national monuments or natural wonders of the West, the iconic kind of vistas of the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park. Those were created under Teddy Roosevelt’s watch, but it was also under his watch that they removed Indigenous peoples from these lands so that white settlers could enjoy them in peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Nick Estes, we’re going to break and then come back. I want to ask you about a number of issues — COVID in South Dakota and other places, for example, where you are, in New Mexico; the standoff with the governor of South Dakota, a Trump ally, Governor Noem, going after Indigenous leaders for setting up checkpoints to check for COVID; and about the renaming of the sports teams, from the R-dsk-ns to the Cleveland Indians. Stay with us. This is Nick Estes. He’s a professor at University of New Mexico.


AMY GOODMAN: “Warrior People” by Nahko and Medicine for the People.

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Indigenous Historian Nick Estes on Toppling Statues, Racist Team Names & COVID-19 in Indian Country

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