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From a distance, the green pines and the blue-gray haze that gently hug the valleys of the Black Hills merge into a deep black. The Lakota name “He Sapa”—meaning “black ridge”—describes this visual phenomenon. This is a place of origin for dozens of Native peoples and a revered landscape for more than 50 others. The land’s most recent, and perhaps longest-serving, stewards—the Oceti Sakowin, the Dakota, Nakota and Lakota people—hold the mountains central to their cosmos.
The Black Hills are also central to the political territory drawn by the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties. And they continue to be a crucial part of the strategic position that sustained Native resistance to white encroachment. They have become an international symbol of the call to return stolen land to Indigenous people. That’s why President Donald Trump chose to hold his July 3 rally at Mount Rushmore, said Nick Tilsen, who is Oglala Lakota. The faces of U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are carved into the side of the granite mountain that is the heart of the Lakota universe.
Tilsen is the president and CEO of NDN Collective, a Native-run nonprofit based in Rapid City, South Dakota, which launched a campaign on Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2020 to return He Sapa to Native people. Many Lakota people, like Tilsen, view the national monument, which attracts 2 million visitors a year, as a desecration of a spiritual landscape. “What South Dakota and the National Park Service call ‘a shrine to democracy’ is actually an international symbol of white supremacy,” Tilsen said. He was among 20 arrested for protesting Trump’s visit. If convicted, he faces up to 16½ years in prison for four felonies and three misdemeanors.
According to Tilsen, the protesters had negotiated the blockade with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and the South Dakota Highway Patrol. The activists blocked the road, using three disabled vans to bar the way. “It was to hold space and connect our issue to the world,” Tilsen explained. Tilsen and others worked throughout the day to keep the protests organized, even speaking directly with park authorities to ensure that elderly activists and children were allowed to move away before any arrests were made. Soon, deputies announced that the assembly was unlawful, and the Air National Guard moved in, dressed in riot gear, pushing the protesters back and firing pepper balls at the retreating crowd.
“A lot of the protectors had coup sticks, eagle feathers, and (sage) smudge sticks—and everything that you could think of that was sacred to us,” Laura Ten Fingers, one of the young Lakotas who helped organize the protest, recalled. A group of Trump supporters stood behind the police line, she said, shouting at the crowd “to go back to where you come from.” “It was really heartbreaking to hear them to say, ‘Go back,'” she said. “He Sapa was our home, and we came from there.”
During the confrontation, Tilsen took a National Guard riot shield. He was arrested and charged with felony theft and robbery. When the shield was returned, the word “POLICE” had been spray-painted over and replaced by the slogan “LAND BACK.” That slogan put the Black Hills at the center of a movement whose unequivocal demands are rooted in a long, hard-fought history.
“I don’t want to be the next Leonard Peltier,” Tilsen told me, referring to the legendary American Indian Movement activist, who has been imprisoned since 1977 for the murder of two FBI agents. (Peltier has always maintained his innocence.) Tilsen believes the police are trying “to coin me as a radical fringe activist.” He’s a father of four whose organization is currently running a nationwide emergency COVID-19 relief effort for Native communities. “I was a speaker at the Chamber of Commerce a year and a half ago. NDN Collective is on Main Street in Rapid City,” he said. Still, Tilsen would never deny his connection to Leonard Peltier or the American Indian Movement. It is, after all, deep in his family history.
His Jewish grandfather, Kenneth Tilsen, was a prominent civil rights attorney, who with his wife, Rachel (daughter of the celebrated socialist writer Meridel Le Sueur) defended draft resisters during the Vietnam War. Later, the couple helped form the Wounded Knee Defense/Offense Committee for the American Indian Movement (AIM) leadership trials. Tilsen’s Lakota mother, Joann Tall, worked with her uncle, Pedro Bissonette, and the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization, a group led by Lakota elders who had asked AIM for armed protection against a repressive tribal government in Pine Ridge in 1973. Tilsen’s parents met during the siege, when federal officers fired more than 200,000 rounds of ammunition at Native protesters—killing two, including Bissonette—at the very site where the 7th Cavalry, George Armstrong Custer’s former regiment, massacred hundreds of Lakota Ghost Dancers in 1890. All that happened just down the road from Tilsen’s home.
Raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the birthplace of AIM, Tilsen spent his summers in Pine Ridge, where he was born, immersed in the movement. He returned to the reservation at 19 to live and work. “The Black Hills issue is part of my identity,” he said.
In Lakota Country—where the shadows of history linger, on the land and in one’s family tree—a new generation is continuing the fight. The loss of the Black Hills has come to represent all the injustices Lakota people have suffered. “It’s not just about physical land back,” Tilsen said. “It’s also about undoing what was done to us as a people.” Also down the road from Tilsen’s home, just outside of Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is KILI, “the voice of the Lakota Nation”—the radio station his parents helped jumpstart in the 1990s. A tribal radio station was among the original demands behind the 71-day armed takeover of Wounded Knee; activists hoped that publicly broadcasting council meetings would end tribal government corruption.
Land theft brought material deprivation. The Lakota and Dakota people inhabit several of the poorest counties in the United States. Tilsen’s home, Oglala Lakota County, is one of them. “As Indigenous people, we have the lowest economic conditions of anyone in America,” he said. Native American children in South Dakota have the lowest rates of economic mobility in the nation, according to a 2017 Annie E. Casey Foundation report.
“A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” That is how a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court opinion described the theft of the Black Hills from the “Sioux Nation of Indians.” The court awarded the tribe $102 million; today, with the accumulated interest, it comes to nearly $2 billion. But the Lakota position remains unwavering, as shown by the popular slogan, “The Black Hills are not for sale!” The relationship with He Sapa cannot be translated into money. The land itself, the tribes said, must be returned.
Before jackhammers and dynamite chiseled the heads of presidents into the cliff faces, miners cut deep into the Black Hills, in search of a subterranean El Dorado.
Custer, a Civil War veteran turned Indian fighter, discovered gold in 1874 near the town that now bears his name. In a treaty signed at Fort Laramie just six years earlier, the United States had pledged that a reservation—a 35 million-acre “permanent home” encompassing the entirety of what is currently the half of South Dakota west of the Missouri River—would be “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of the Sioux Nation. A bloody war erupted over Custer’s trespass into treaty territory, a sin for which he and 250 of his men paid with their lives. By the time the dust settled, the place was booming.
In 1877, under the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, the former Union general, the 1868 treaty was abrogated. The Black Hills were seized, the people threatened with starvation. Prospectors hoping to strike paydirt moved in, and frontier towns like Deadwood—notorious for their trade in women, gambling and violence—sprang up, forming the bulwark of white settlement. For 125 years, miners attacked the earth, drawing 10 percent of the world’s gold supply from its ore-rich veins.
The rise of automobiles and the tourist industry created new fortunes for the interlopers. In the 1920s, South Dakota’s first state historian, Doane Robinson, proposed building a massive sculpture to attract visitors to the remote location. But finding an artist willing to undertake such a feat wasn’t easy. Robinson had been moved by the recently constructed memorial at Stone Mountain in Georgia, which honored the defenders of the Civil War’s inglorious “Lost Cause.” He contacted its flamboyant sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, who quickly accepted the offer.
Mount Rushmore came to South Dakota by way of a Southern, white supremacist ideology that blended easily with the West’s sense of Manifest Destiny. Borglum himself was a bridge: The child of a polygamist Mormon family of Danish settlers in Idaho, he made a name for himself as an artist in service of the Ku Klux Klan. On Thanksgiving Day 1915, the so-called “Invisible Empire” was reborn in a torchlight ceremony atop Stone Mountain. The site is still sacred to the Klan and Confederate sympathizers. The next year, the Daughters of the Confederacy drafted a plan to commemorate the occasion with a memorial. By 1923, Borglum was a trusted Klan insider who served on the Kloncilium, the highest decision-making body, second only to the Grand Wizard. He was a natural candidate for the Stone Mountain job.
The Klan hardened Borglum’s strident xenophobia and belief in European—meaning Nordic—racial superiority. But Stone Mountain was too geopolitically specific—too distinctly Southern—to capture his grand nationalist vision. He saw the Black Hills as ideal, “so near the center of our country or so suitable for (a) colossal sculpture.” His monument would “symbolize the principles of liberty and freedom on which the nation was founded,” he later wrote.
More fundamentally, it would assert white possession, not just over the Black Hills but over the entire continent. The ancient granite hills would bear both gold and glory for the United States with the busts of four of its presidents. In a letter to Robinson, Borglum warned that if his masterpiece wasn’t constructed properly, “we will only wound the mountain, offend the Gods, and deserve condemnation for posterity.” In 1936, an awestruck Franklin Delano Roosevelt echoed Borglum as he gazed up at the nearly completed shrine. Its size, its “permanent beauty” and “permanent importance” meant that “ten thousand years from now” Americans would meditate in reverence here. Almost a century later, Trump proclaimed, “Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.” The crowd chanted, “USA! USA! USA!”
Lakota people have occupied the Black Hills for generations. In 1970, at the height of the Red Power movement, John (Fire) Lame Deer, a Lakota holy man, climbed the monument and sat on Teddy Roosevelt’s head, “giving him a headache, maybe.” Native students and activists had taken over Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay a year earlier. Lame Deer was at a protest camp on top of the monument, with a banner that read “Red Power—Indian Land.”
Frustrated by getting no response from the federal government, Lizzy Fast Horse, a Lakota grandmother and one of the camp’s founders, and some accomplices decided to take back the Black Hills themselves. Fast Horse was among those calling for the United States to return 200,000 acres of Oglala Lakota land that had been confiscated during World War II for a gunnery and bombing range. She and two other Lakota women hid from park rangers and police, braving lightning storms as they made their way up the mountain. “We got braver and braver, and now we’re not afraid of anyone,” Fast Horse said at the time. Lee Brightman, the Lakota founder of United Native Americans, explained the camp’s goals: “We want payment for the Black Hills, for all the minerals mined, for the timber taken out. And we want our sacred mountains back.”
Those demands go far back, according to Charmaine White Face, the first Oglala woman spokesperson for the Sioux Nation Treaty Council. “It was illegal to talk about the (1868) treaty” when the treaty council formed in 1894, “just like the language was prohibited, just like our religion was prohibited by the American government.” But times have changed: White Face believes that her grandmother’s treaty knowledge, which survived government suppression, can be useful for the “land back” campaign.
This history is why Nick Tilsen loves the slogan. “You have elders saying ‘land back,’” he chuckles. “You want your land back? Hell yeah, I want my land back. I’ve been wanting my land back.” No one owns the phrase, he said; it “has lived in the spirit of the people for a long time.”
“Not only has this been a long generational battle, it is also part of this current moment,” said Krystal Two Bulls. The Northern Cheyenne and Oglala Lakota military veteran heads NDN Collective’s LandBack campaign, which was launched last Indigenous Peoples’ Day with the goal of returning public lands in the Black Hills to the Oceti Sakowin, starting with Mount Rushmore. “Public land is the first manageable bite,” she said, “then we’re coming for everything else.” This would usher an era of free and prior informed consent; tribes would form meaningful partnerships to promote land stewardship and equitable housing, and address more than a century of wrongdoings.
In the Black Hills, the idea has traction. In 1987, New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, a former New York Knicks basketball player, introduced legislation drafted by Lakota people to return 1.3 million acres, targeting Park Service land, not private land. The bill died in committee.
Two Bulls sees land return as a moral issue more than a legal one. It’s not about ownership, she said, but stewardship. “As a Northern Cheyenne woman, part of my original instructions is to be in relationship with the land as a steward.”
To Laura Ten Fingers, the idea of ownership doesn’t entirely mesh with Lakota relations with the land. “To me, ‘land back’ means that—it’s not that we own the land,” she said. “The land owns you. It’s a way of ensuring it’s protected and preserved by the people who originally took care of it, which is us.”
From her home in Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Ten Fingers watched the George Floyd protests erupt in Minneapolis and spread across the nation. “The momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement also created (a space) for Indigenous sovereignty,” she said. Inspired, she and her friends put out the first call to protest Trump’s visit.
Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore—like his rally the day after Juneteenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of an infamous race massacre in 1921—was part of a series of raucous campaign rallies aimed at firing up his base and provoking his political opponents.
“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children,” Trump warned the crowd at the base of Mount Rushmore, the day before Independence Day last year. He blamed “cancel culture”—which he called “the very definition of totalitarianism”—for the recent toppling of Confederate statues and monuments and other controversial historical figures. A week earlier, he signed an executive order that condemned the destruction as the actions of “rioters, arsonists, and left-wing extremists,” calling for the arrest of vandals who destroyed federal property and their imprisonment for up to 10 years.
“Do you know, it’s my dream to have my face on Mount Rushmore,” Trump told South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem when they first met in the Oval Office. “He was totally serious,” Noem, who invited Trump to Mount Rushmore, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader in 2018.
Trump’s arrival only inflamed the long-standing tensions between tribes and the state of South Dakota. Lakota leaders saw his visit as retaliation for their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and to the state’s lack of response to the coronavirus pandemic. That May, Noem had threatened “legal action” against the tribal health checkpoints set up to curtail the spread of the virus, claiming they interfered with traffic. “We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,” Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, wrote to Noem in reply. Her state has some of the nation’s highest rates of infection and death. South Dakota backed down.
The Cheyenne River, Rosebud and Oglala Sioux tribal chairmen all wrote letters protesting Trump’s visit, citing public health concerns and the continued indifference toward Lakota treaty rights. In separate statements, Frazier and Julian Running Bear, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, demanded the return of the Black Hills. They also called for the removal of Mount Rushmore itself, which Frazier described as a “brand on our flesh (that) needs to be removed,” adding, “I am willing to do it free of charge to the United States, by myself if I must.”
But history moves on. In November, Trump lost his bid for re-election; the Rapid City Council voted to return 1,200 acres in the Black Hills to the Oceti Sakowin; and in Rapid City, Lakota activists set up Camp Mni Luzahan to house Native people living on the streets so that they don’t die of exposure during the harsh winter months.
But the pipeline protests have also sharpened disputes between tribes and the state. South Dakota lawmakers feared another massive protest like Standing Rock in 2016. So the Legislature criminalized pipeline-related protests ahead of the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Noem introduced a controversial “riot boosting” law, which would have created civil and criminal penalties for individuals who supported any “incitement to riot,” claiming it was necessary to address problems caused by “out-of-state rioters funded by out-of-state interests.”
This was the battle Tilsen found himself in. He testified against the law at the state Capitol and was a named plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit that successfully challenged its constitutionality. “We helped water down the current riot boosting law, to make it as weak as possible,” Tilsen explained. He saw it as a win for free speech and treaty rights, as well as the right to legally protest Keystone XL. “It’s a reminder,” Tilsen said, “as Indigenous people, we’re fighting for justice not just for ourselves but also on behalf of millions of Americans.” In March 2020, Noem signed a revised version of the law.
It was at Mount Rushmore in the early 1870s that Black Elk, the Oglala holy man, had a vision of He Sapa: “From the mountains flashed all colors upwards to the heavens.” He was at the center of the world atop Tunkasila Sakpe, the Six Grandfathers. The mountain would be named for Black Elk’s vision that day. He saw a great hoop made up of many hoops of a people united. In the center grew a flowering tree, he recalled, “and I saw that it was holy.”
In August, a magistrate judge ruled that there was evidence for the trial to move forward. Tilsen hopes his case and the LandBack campaign will have a similar catalyzing effect, not only for the land-return movement but for the restored dignity of his people. “It was powerful,” Tilsen said, remembering that day. “There was between 100 and 200 of us. It must have felt like there were thousands of us, because you could feel that spiritual power from the hills. The ancestors were waiting for us to go up there.”
Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico and the author of Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (Verso, 2019)