We Stand with Indigenous Treaty Defenders


On Friday, July 3, the Oglala Sioux Tribe voted to ban President Donald Trump and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem from visiting Mount Rushmore (known to the Lakota as the Six Grandfathers). Earlier that same week, President Trump announced plans to hold a large 4th of July rally at the site. Despite rising COVID-19 case numbers around the country, event organizers did not mandate that attendees wear masks or enforce social distancing measures. 

Since President Trump’s event announcement, three Tribes – the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe – have asserted their sovereignty and spoken out against the theft and desecration of the land that Mount Rushmore occupies. They’ve also let President Trump know that he’s not welcome on Lakota reservation lands, which include the area occupied by Mount Rushmore. Here are just a few statements made by Tribal leaders on the issue:

  • Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner: “The lands on which that mountain is carved and the lands he’s about to visit belong to the Great Sioux Nation under a treaty signed in 1851 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and I have to tell him he doesn’t have permission from its original sovereign owners to enter the territory at this time.”
  • Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe President Harold Frazier: “This brand on our flesh needs to be removed, and I am willing to do it free of charge to the United States, by myself if I must.”
  • Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Rodney Bordeaux: “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.”

In addition to these powerful words issued by Tribal leaders, grassroots Native activists spoke out and took direct action to defend their treaty against the presidential visit. For example, NDN Collective, a Native American nonprofit based in Rapid City, helped organize a blockade of Highway 16A leading to Mount Rushmore on July 3rd. Several protesters, including NDN Collective CEO Nick Tilsen, were met with pepper spray and arrested. We stand with NDN Collective as they seek justice for these Indigenous treaty defenders. 

Indigenous Land: Understanding the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty

Image credit: ndstudies.gov

1868 Treaty Map

The actions taken by Indigenous treaty defenders highlight the United States government’s failure to honor the Treaty of Fort Laramie, among many others. The Lakota people and the United States government signed the agreement in 1868, which set aside reservation land that encompassed all of western South Dakota, including the Black Hills.

In addition, the treaty recognized the existence of unceded territory, which would later become portions of North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado. The Treaty of Fort Laramie asserted that this land was to be,

“…set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians herein named…”

According to the United States Constitution, treaties are the “supreme law of the land.” (For more on this, read our article on Tribal sovereignty.)

Shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, gold prospectors flocked to the Black Hills. The United States government quickly abandoned and violated their treaty obligations, deploying military forces to the area and attempting to legalize the seizure of the land through federal legislation. This blatant land theft paved the way for the construction of Mount Rushmore by a known KKK sympathizer in the 1920s. 

Many years later, in 1980, the United States Supreme Court ruled the United States government’s theft of the land unconstitutional. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackman summarized the United States’ disregard for its Fort Laramie treaty obligations in the Court opinion as follows: “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history…”

Broken Promises

Mount Rushmore symbolizes white supremacy and broken promises. As Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier explains, “Nothing stands as a greater reminder to the Great Sioux Nation of a country that cannot keep a promise or treaty than the faces carved into our sacred land on what the United States calls Mount Rushmore.” 

We urge you to support Lakota Tribes and activists as they fight for the return of their stolen land. #LandBack