Native Americans protesting Trump trip to Mount Rushmore
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - President Donald Trump's plans to begin Independence Day with a flashy exhibit on Mount Rushmore have angered Native Americans, who see the memorial as desecration of land that was violently stolen from them and that paid homage to hostile leaders to indigenous peoples.
Several groups led by Native American activists are planning protests for Trump's visit on July 3, part of Trump's "comeback" campaign for a nation hit by disease, unemployment, and more recently social unrest. The event is expected to include fighter planes thundering over the 79-year-old stone monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the first fireworks on the site since 2009.
But it comes in the midst of a national settlement on racism and a review of the symbolism of monuments around the world. Many Native American activists say the Rushmore monument is as reprehensible as the many Confederate monuments that are toppled across the country.
"Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white dominance, of structural racism that is still alive and well in today's society," said Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and president of a local activist organization called the NDN Collective. "It is an injustice to actively steal the land of the indigenous people and then carve the white faces of the conquerors who committed genocide."
While some activists like Tilsen want the memorial removed and the Black Hills to return to the Lakota, others demand a share in the region's economic benefits.
Trump has long been fascinated by Mount Rushmore. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem said in 2018 that he once told her directly that it was his dream to have his face carved into the memorial. He later joked at a campaign event about being anchored alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. And while it was Noem, a Republican who pushed for the return of fireworks on the eve of Independence Day, Trump undertook to visit South Dakota for the celebration.
Some Wildfire experts have raised concerns that pyrotechnics could start fires, especially because the region's dry weather this year. Firefighters called crews from two other states to help on Thursday, as a fire consumed approximately 61 hectares south of the monument.
The four faces carved into the mountain with dynamite and drills are known as the "Shrine of Democracy". The presidents were selected by sculptor Gutzon Borglum to guide them in four phases of American development: Washington led the birth of the nation; Jefferson triggered its westward expansion; Lincoln preserved the union and emancipated slaves; Roosevelt was committed to industrial innovation.
And yet, the memorial to many Native Americans, including the Lakota, Cheyenne, Omaha, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Kiowa-Apache, is a desecration of the Black Hills that they consider sacred. The Lakota know the area as Paha Sapa - "the heart of everything that is".
When monuments to Confederate and colonial leaders were removed nationwide, some conservatives expressed concern that Mount Rushmore might be the next. Commentator Ben Shapiro suggested this week that the “awakened historical revisionist priesthood” wanted to blow up the monument. Noem replied with a tweet: "Not on my watch."
The governor told Fox News on Wednesday: "These men have mistakes, obviously every leader has mistakes, but we're missing the opportunity we have in this discussion to discuss the virtues and what they have brought to this country and the fact that this is the case is the foundation on which we are building and the legacy we should continue. "
Tim Giago, a journalist who is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, said he does not see four great American leaders when he looks at the monument. He sees four white men who either made racist statements or initiated actions that removed Indians from their country. Washington and Jefferson kept slaves. Despite leading the abolition of slavery, Lincoln approved the execution of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota after a violent conflict with white settlers. Roosevelt is said to have said: "I don't go so far as to believe that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I think nine out of ten are ..."
The memorial has long been a "Rorschach test," said John Taliaferro, author of Great White Fathers, a history of the memorial. "All kinds of people can go there and see it in different ways."
The memorial often begins discussions about the paradox of American democracy - that a republic that promoted the ideals of freedom, determination, and innovation also enslaved people and drove others out of their country, he said.
"If we have this discussion today about what American democracy is, Mount Rushmore really serves its purpose because this conversation continues there," he said. "Is it fragile? Is it permanent? Does it crack something? "
The monument was conceived in the 1920s as a tourist attraction for the new fad on vacation known as a road trip. South Dakota historian Doane Robinson recruited Borglum to abandon his work to create the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in Georgia, in which Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson were to participate.
According to historian and writer Tom Griffith from Mount Rushmore, Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Borglum joined the clan to raise money for the Confederate Monument, and Griffith argues that his loyalty is more practical than ideological.
Native American activists have long held local protests to draw attention to the history of the Black Hills, which have been confiscated in spite of treaties with the United States to protect the country. Fifty years ago, a group of activists associated with an organization called United Native Americans climbed to the top of the monument and occupied it.
Quanah Brightman, who now heads United Native Americans, said activism in the 1970s emerged from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He hopes that a similar movement for Indians comes from the Black Lives Matter movement.
"What people find here is the history of America - it's multidimensional, it's complex," said Griffith. "It is important to understand that people only tried to do the right thing as best they knew at the time."
The White House declined to comment.
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