Mount Rushmore protest and the sacredness of the Black Hills

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KEYSTONE, South Dakota – Late last Friday afternoon, July 3, between 100 and 200 Native Americans and other protesters blocked the approach to Mount Rushmore the site of President Trump’s planned speech and the accompanying fireworks display.

Reports suggest that protesters drove up in several vans, parking them in a manner to completely block the road. Then they let the air out of their tires, making it impossible for the vans to be easily removed from the road. The group carried signs about treaty rights as well as Black Live Matter. Some carried signs that said, “Protect SoDak’s First People,” “You Are On Stolen Land,” and “Dismantle White Supremacy.”

At one point law enforcement in camos, carrying shields, and wearing tear gas masks replaced the less armored police who had been on the scene earlier. The police in camos order the media back and moved forward in elbow-to-elbow formation.

Reports also said that minor altercations resulted in some arrests. Some protesters began to burn sage. After about 2 hours, the protesters began to leave, and the police moved in to clear the road. About 15 people were arrested. Two tow trucks removed the vans that had blocked the road. Prior to the blockade, about 25 protesters had marched through nearby Keystone South Dakota.

Mount Rushmore, a context and brief history

In 1923, South Dakota historian, Doane Robinson proposed a massive monumental sculpture in the Black Hills or “Paha Sapa” in the indigenous Lakota language. In that language, “Paha Sapa” means “the heart of everything that is.” He wanted it to have a regional focus and include figures like Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill, and Dakota warriors, as well as Lewis and Clark. Supporters hoped it would draw tourists, lots of them. In 1924, Robinson wrote to a rising sculptor, Gutzon Borglum about this project.

At the time, Borglum had started to work on the Stone Mountain Monument. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) sponsored this project. It was to have images of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson carved into the side of Stone Mountain. Borglum worked on the Stone Mountain Monument from 1923 to 1925.

Financing was shaky and disputes arose. On February 25, 1925, the UDC fired Borglum. When Robinson’s letter arrived, Borglum decided to go to South Dakota. He used the skills he learned at Stone Mountain to carve Mount Rushmore.

In South Dakota, Borglum rejected Robinson’s bi-racial, regional focus for the monument. Instead, he favored a white, national focus. In Indian Country Today, Christina Rose noted the anti-Native policies and actions of all four Presidents carved into the mountain.

The Black Hills, Image credit: Runner1928 – SA 3.0,

The border dispute between the US and the Oglala Lakota Nation

Indian nations have sovereignty, and treaties, not laws, define their relationship to the U.S. As sovereign nations, Indian nations have borders with the U.S. Oglala Lakota Nation, part of the Sioux Nation, disputes its current border with the U.S. Mount Rushmore lies in that disputed territory.

Nick Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, wrote in NBCNews/Think about the treaties between the Lakota Nation and the U.S. government.

In 1868, the U.S. and the Lakota signed the Laramie treaty, which recognized the rights and sovereignty of the Lakota to the Black Hills/Paha Sapa. An area that extends from South Dakota to Wyoming.

In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills/Paha Sapa by European settlers, and soon after, the settlers attacked the Lakota and seized their land.

In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that that seizure of the Black Hills/Paha Sapa violated the U.S. Constitution. They ordered the U.S. to pay a settlement of $106 million to the Lakota for trespassing and seizing the Black Hills/Paha Sapa.

The Lakota have refused the settlement offer because they want the land back as agreed on in the 1868 Laramie Treaty. Tilsen was among those arrested for blocking the access road to Mount Rushmore on Friday.

Black Hills, Image credit: Doug Swisher – CC BY-SA 3.0,


MSNBC host, Lawrence O’Donnell spoke with the President of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Julian Bear Runner, on The Eleventh Hour.

Bear Runner spoke about his correspondence with the White House, and described his communication with the White House, as diplomatic. He had written to the White House informing them that they need permission to enter the Black Hills/Paha Sapa. He then informed the White House that the White House lacked that permission.

Bear Runner reported that that the Lakota considered Mount Rushmore as sacred long before any European settlers arrived. The Lakota call that part of the mountain “Six Grandfathers.”

The Black Hills/Paha Sapa as Sacred Landscape

Among Native Americans, all land is viewed as a living and sacred entity. For the Lakota, the Black Hills/Paha Sapa is considered a very sacred space. Without access to that physical landscape, certain spiritual practices cannot occur.

Oglala Lakota medicine man, Rick Two-Dogs, said that all the Lakota origin stories go back to these hills. He continued, “We have a spiritual connection to the Black Hills that can’t be sold. I don’t think I could face the Creator with an open heart if I ever took money for it.”

Lakota scholar Vine Deloria described spring ceremonies among the Lakota. He said, “In the spring, the people would follow the buffalo herd and they’d have to do a series of four ceremonies, the last one of which would either end up at Devils Tower or Bear Butte depending on what year it was and what the situation was.”

Things changed after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills/Paha Sapa. Mining for gold, coal, and uranium still threatens the Black Hills/Paha Sapa, as does recreational use.

In the 2014 Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, Leonard Little Finger wrote about the sacredness of the Black Hills, and recounts a story told in the Lakota language that he heard in 1947 when he was eight-years-old, about a sacred prayer journey his grandfather and great grandparents made in 1883 to Washun Niye, “a site from which Mother Earth breathes.”

“They were following a path that had been a journey for his people for thousands of years. In preparation for the ceremony, the women dried the hide of a pte, or tatanka (buffalo), which was carried to this site for the sacred ceremony. The cannupa (sacred pipe) acknowledged pte by returning the hide to the world; upon completion of the prayers, the hide would be dropped into the hole. As my grandfather watched, Washun Niye carried the hide downward in a spiraling motion, soon to be enveloped into the darkness. The power of the sacred circle which has no ending was affirmed.”

According to Little Finger, to the Lakota, the Black Hills/Paha Sapa is a “container for our spiritual need as well as our needs of food and water, whatever it is that allows survival.”

Little Finger described the experience of Lakota elders.

“Recently we were asked as elders to look at some aerial photos of the southern Black Hills. We looked at them as sacred circles, and in an aerial photo we saw the image of the big dipper. This is an image of what we are, the journey of the Black Hills, the sacred journey known as ‘seeking sacred goodness’ and the pipe that is used, the cannupa. Today the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples gives us the modern tools to stand up and declare our rights. We have come back to the table on the basis of what is recognized for Indigenous Peoples’ rights and on the basis of what sacredness is. Our beliefs are substantiated by the image of the aerial rock formations in the sacred circle that were left by our ancestors thousands of years ago.”

For Native Americans, religious liberty involves treaty rights, unfettered access, and active control of their sacred landscapes.