“We're gonna have a tremendous evening,” Trump said Thursday. “It's going to be a fireworks display like few people have seen. It's going to be very exciting. It's going to be beautiful.”
But many Native American leaders could not disagree more.
They have watched as, across the country, protests over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers grew into a broader demand to reexamine and tear down relics of the nation's racial past.
For many Native Americans, the 79-year-old Mount Rushmore, with four white faces carved into the granite, is a symbol of similar oppression, especially offensive because it's located in South Dakota's Black Hills, which they regard with reverence.
“Nothing stands as a greater reminder to the Great Sioux Nation of a country that cannot keep a promise or treaty then the faces carved into our sacred land on what the United States called Mount Rushmore,” Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said in a statement. ”We are now being forced to witness the lashing of our land with pomp, arrogance and fire hoping our sacred lands will survive.”
While many Americans view Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as great leaders, others are reminded of their controversial pasts.
Washington and Jefferson both owned slaves; Roosevelt promoted the country's westward expansion, leading to the desecration of Native lands and peoples by white settlers.
According to the Associated Press, Roosevelt is even reported to have said, "I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are."
And Lincoln, though celebrated for having led the emancipation of black slaves, approved the hanging of 38 Dakota Native American men, according to the Library of Congress. It was the largest government sanctioned mass execution in U.S. history.
Mount Rushmore historian Tom Griffith told the AP the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum, was a member of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan. Though Griffith said Borglum’s allegiance to the Confederacy was more practical than ideological, his affiliations nonetheless stood for hatred and inequality.
The monument is also a reminder to Native Americans of the countless treaties broken by the U.S. government.
According to both the Lakota tribe and the United States Supreme Court, the Black Hills should never have been taken by the United States government.
In 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed a permanent “Great Sioux Reservation” to the Sioux tribe, which included the Black Hills. Under this agreement, “no treaty for the cession of any portion or part of the reservation” could be sold or traded unless 75% of “adult male Indians” agreed to the change.
But despite this treaty establishing the Black Hills as part of a reservation, white settlers began moving onto Lakota land searching for gold. Tribes in the area tried to fight them off, but they were also facing a threat of starvation as many of the bison herds in the area were destroyed.
In 1873, a group of Lakota men agreed to cede the Black Hills in exchange for the U.S. government providing food. That group of men made up just 10% of the male population of the tribe. But the U.S. government proceeded to take that land, and by 1941 the four presidents’ faces were carved into the mountainside.
After years of legal challenges, the Supreme Court in 1980 upheld the Indian Claims Commission's ruling that the taking of the Black Hills was illegal under the Fifth Amendment, based on the fact that 75% of the tribe’s men had not consented to the agreement.
“A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history,” the majority opinion stated in United States v. Sioux Nation.
The Lakota tribe has been offered monetary settlements now worth about $1 billion, according to Jeff Ostler, a historian at the University of Oregon, but they refuse to accept it saying they will only accept the land back that was illegally taken from them.
Trump’s visit also comes at a moment when the nation faces a rising coronavirus cases.
“Now he’s hosting an over-the-top fireworks display in our sacred Black Hills, while he doles out retribution against our Tribal governments,” said Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux. “And for what? For doing what he failed to do—protecting people from a deadly virus."
This event celebrating the nation’s 244th birthday also has raised alarm in some Native American tribes in South Dakota, concerned that the event will put tribal members needlessly at risk for spread of the coronavirus. Their fear only was heightened given the toll the virus has taken on the Navajo Nation where members experience high rates of underlying medical conditions making them more vulnerable and have limited access to hospitals, some 100 miles away.
“We are more than three hours from the nearest critical care facility,” said Julian Bear Runner, President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, ahead of Trump's visit. “To expose our people to the virus would be devastating. And for our more vulnerable members who have underlying medical conditions, COVID-19 is far more deadly.”
While there were originally plans for social distancing during the South Dakota event, those plans have been scrapped and the state is now expecting 7,500 people to attend the Mount Rushmore celebration. An additional 3,500 people will be allowed to watch the fireworks on screens from the exterior.
“We told those folks that have concerns that they stay can home,” GOP Gov. Kristi Noem said in an interview with Fox News on Monday night. “But those who want to come, join us. We will be giving out free face masks if they choose to wear one. We won’t be social distancing, we’re asking them to come, be ready to celebrate the freedoms and the liberties we have in this country.”
With large crowds expected, no social distancing and face coverings remaining optional – which goes against recommendations issued by the CDC, the Mount Rushmore event concerns Native American locals.
“Trump coming here is a safety concern not just for my people inside and outside the reservation, but for people in the Great Plains,” said Bear Runner in an interview with the Guardian. “We have such limited resources in Black Hills, and we’re already seeing infections rising.”
Just this week, the United States saw an increase in over 50,000 positive cases in just one day.
“In a time of crisis, where more than 127,299 Americans have died, the president is putting our Tribal members at risk to stage a photo-op at one of our most sacred sites,” Frazier said. “This is an administration that has not only mishandled the federal government’s response to the virus from the start, but has attempted to trample on our rights as a sovereign nation to conduct safety checks at our boundaries. We will not allow this administration or anyone to interfere with our right to take measures to protect our people.”
The pushback also comes on the heels of a lawsuit brought by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe against the Trump administration, claiming the White House tried to stop the tribe from implementing checkpoints on federal roads near the reservation. According to the lawsuit, Frazier, the chairman of the tribe, received calls from Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, and Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of coronavirus task force. The tribe was told that if it didn’t let up on the checkpoints, their law enforcement program would be taken over by the federal government.
“You see what they’re doing at the state level in places like Washington state, New York and California to be proactive in slowing the spread,” said Rodney Bordeaux, President of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who supports the lawsuit. “Our tribal governments also have rights, and obligations to our people to protect them. Apparently, the administration wants to punish Tribes for that. We will not stand by and let that happen.”