#LandBack. Photo courtesy NDN Collective

Jenni Monet: Making the case for treaties at Mount Rushmore

Land Back
Making the Case for Treaties at Mount Rushmore

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Nick Tilsen wasn’t even born yet the year his parents helped organize The International Black Hills Survival Gathering. The massive event was held during the summer of 1980 on the Lakota’s holiest homelands. Mining interests in the Black Hills, South Dakota had once again intensified. Top of mind was also the highly anticipated United States Supreme Court decision that would determine, once and for all, whether the Black Hills had been stolen by colonizers. As history tells us, the Court ruled that it did.

On the eve of the Gathering, the Supreme Court delivered an 8–1 decision that said the Lakota were entitled to compensation for the Black Hills, seized by Congress a century earlier by use of “eminent domain.” The ruling resulted in $105 million to be divided among eight different tribes of the Great Sioux Nation. In defense of their treaty rights, the tribal nations outright rejected the deal. Today, the offer still stands, and in fact, has even ballooned. Inflation increased the value of the landgrab to roughly $1.5 billion. Forty summers later, the Lakota still don’t want the money. They just want the land back.

“Most of our people were not advocating at the time to receive some kind of monetary compensation,” said Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and CEO of NDN Collective. “Everybody that was in that work honestly thought that the effort was to get our land returned.”

Nick Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, serves as CEO of NDN Collective, whose mission is to guild the collective power of Indigenous Peoples, communities, and Nations to exercise our inherent right to self-determination, while fostering a world that is built on a foundation of justice and equity for all people and the planet. Photo courtesy NDN Collective

As America confronts its colonial past in the midst of one of the most historic presidential elections in the U.S. timeline, the Black Hills are now central to a national dialogue centered around the continuum of white supremacy and its impact on citizens of color. Set against this backdrop is Mount Rushmore, the chiseled faces of four of the country’s leading conquerers. To the Lakota, the monument is like graffiti on a tabernacle. To President Trump, it’s the ideal setting to ramp up a beleaguered reelection campaign — and in throes of a crisis trifecta: an unresolved pandemic, a racial uprising, and soaring unemployment.

At a time when the debate everywhere has centered around symbols of systemic racism, which in America, has also amplified a renewed cry for Black slave reparations, the light cast on the Black Hills, at this moment, perhaps frames a more perfect argument — that if true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must first take seriously what it owes Indigenous Peoples: fulfilled treaty rights established as “the supreme Law of the Land” under Article Six of the U.S. Constitution.

Anything less, said Tilsen, continues the hypocrisy of democracy. “Long term, we want to see Mount Rushmore closed as a national monument. And the decision-making power on what to do with it needs to be transferred back to the Lakota people of the region.”

On Friday, Tilsen led a demonstration that blocked the highway leading up to Trump’s Mount Rushmore rally in South Dakota. He was prepared to get arrested and he did.

A #LandBack protest in Keystone, South Dakota, on July 3, 2020. Photo by Willi White, courtesy NDN Collective

The site of Mount Rushmore is historically regarded by the Lakota as “The Six Grandfathers” (Thuŋkášila Šákpe), named after the Earth, the Sky, and the Four Directions. More broadly, the Black Hills, which sprawl across South Dakota and Wyoming, take their name from the Lakota phrase Paha Sápa. It’s where the Lakota, since time immemorial, have held their ceremonies, gathered their medicines, and honored the Earth across the seasons. In every sense, the Lakota regard this land as religious property.

Today, the Black Hills are home to a state park, a national park, a national forest, and some national monuments, including the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Each year, an average of three million people visit Rushmore’s immense granite busts of U.S. presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt. These aren’t the only sculptures in the mountain range; the unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial stands in honor of the eponymous Lakota warrior.

Mount Rushmore, the sculpting vision of a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer, is named after a goldrush lawyer who visited the Black Hills at the height of the mining boom in the 1880s. Combined, these details lay bare an American narrative that few have been taught in public schools but represent the most basic lesson about the colonization of this country.

The bust of President Washington represents the legalization of colonization. In 1790, Washington signed the NonIntercourse Act which laid the ground rules for extinguishing aboriginal title of Indigenous lands. The idea at the time among lawmakers was that if conquering were to occur, it should be conducted with some kind of order — through treaty-making — or else risk total chaos. It’s not a mistake that the Act was among the first laws passed by Congress upon the birth of the United States.

President Jefferson is a reminder of cultural genocide on Indigenous Peoples. His early nineteenth-century policies imposed on Native Americans were designed to integrate “savages” into white society, a plan that also sought to further diminish Indigenous title to valuable, fertile lands. It took a few decades, but by the 1820s, Jefferson’s goal to “civilize” the Indians ultimately took shape, and under President Andrew Jackson, also known as the “Indian Killer,” he initiated Jefferson’s forced removal policies for the first time in America, targeting tribes from the slave-holding South.

For the Lakota and the Great Sioux Nation, President Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most egregious of the four faces on Mount Rushmore. While Lincoln is largely seen as a liberator for Black Americans, Indigenously, he ranks alongside President Jackson as a murderer. Not only did Lincoln order the mass lynching of 38 Dakota men, killed for speaking out against colonial encroachment; he intensified westward expansion with malice. Passages of the Homestead Act and the Railroad Act aggressively advanced settlement across the Great Plains, including across Lakota lands. To appease these interests, the federal government slaughtered en mass the Lakota’s lifeline, their buffalo. It led to torture campaigns — sanctioned starvation — all in an effort to seize more of their tribal territory; to take the Black Hills. In the Southwest, Lincoln also forced the brutal march of the Diné to the Bosque Redondo in which an estimated 2000 ancestors died before a treaty was signed. The Sand Creek Massacre in southeastern Colorado in 1864 also resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho.

A #LandBack protest in Keystone, South Dakota, on July 3, 2020. Photo by Willi White, courtesy NDN Collective

Prior to becoming America’s twenty-sixth president, Theodore Roosevelt authored his 1889 book, The Winning of the West in which he enthusiastically wrote about conquering “squalid savages” saying the settlers and pioneers “have justice on their side.” The next year, U.S. Armed Forces surrounded Lakota Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and killed them. Their bodies were tossed in a mass grave along with women, children, and elders nearby. President Roosevelt would embrace these genocidal ideals upon expanding the National Park system. In the name of “conservation,” he doubled the number of publicly held lands despite few acknowledging that these spaces were made possible by the systematic removal of Indigenous populations. In his final year in office, Roosevelt refused Apache leader, Geronimo, his release as an American Prisoner of War, remarking at the time of the warrior's death, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are.”

Leading up to the 1980 Black Hills Survival Gathering, Nick Tilsen’s parents helped publish an official event handbook. In their opening remarks, they made one thing clear: “The Gathering is a place of work, not a festival.”

More than eleven-thousand people reportedly showed up. A photograph featured on the handbook’s cover helps paint a picture. A line of cars can be seen snaking their way around the base of a hillside, their windshields reflecting in the bright July sun. Off to the side are even more people on foot.

Like Standing Rock, the event brought Indigenous People and their allies to Lakota Country from all over the world, and similarly, in response to a pile-on of environmental injustices demanding attention.

Nick Tilsen's parents helped publish the official handbook for the 1980 Black Hills International Survival Gathering

A decade earlier, several corporations had applied for and received permits to explore extractive energy projects in the Black Hills. Many of them were guilty of previous environmental misdeeds that were violent to tribal lands. The Kerr-McGee Corporation was especially criticized. After decades of digging all the uranium it could from the Navajo Nation, the company ceased operations while also refusing to reclaim the contaminated land as the company said it would. Their neglect poisoned the soil and Navajo lives.

For the Lakota, the hardships they faced from holding lands rich in resources began a century earlier when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. Shortly after signing the Treaty of Fort Laramie, white prospectors, led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, started pouring in. Eventually, they broke the land agreements outlined in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in the 1870s. Fifty years later, gold diggers returned again to the Black Hills, this time to toil over the carving of Mount Rushmore — a last-ditch effort at nabbing unearthed nuggets. It was around this time in 1922 that the Lakota filed its first claim in court alleging the United States had wrongfully taken the Hills from them.

A century later the struggle continues.

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The way Tilsen’s parents and others put it, the well-being of the Black Hills are not about Lakota interests alone. “The Black Hills are a symbol to people around the world…who are frustrated by the domination of a power structure that operates counter to basic life instincts,” they wrote.

Today, Tilsen considers himself a generational organizer spawned from his parent’s activism. (At Standing Rock, he was arrested for being chained to an excavator.) His mother and father met while at the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973 and raised their son in the spirit of the American Indian Movement, admonishing colonization, and demanding Indigenous justice. They also taught him the significance of the Black Hills — first as a sacred prayer space deeply connected to the Earth, and second as a vital political battleground upholding tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. Now a father, Tilsen is instilling these same values in his own children. When I spoke with him by phone the day before President Trump’s Mount Rushmore rally, he said his kids were busy making protest signs.

“It’s generational organizing, but it’s also just continuing on,” said Tilsen. “When you support Indigenous People in the right ways and in efforts that work, it actually makes for a more just and equitable world for all people, not just Indigenous People.” Eighty miles south of the Black Hills is the Oglala Lakota Nation where Tilsen calls home. In any given dataset, the region almost always ranks number one for being dead last: for food, clothing, shelter, jobs. Other statistics, meanwhile, place the Oglala Lakota at the top of the list, although for a lot of despairing reasons: addiction, short life expectancy, infant mortality, suicide.

Faced with such entrenched poverty, Tilsen can understand why outsiders looking-in would be confused over the Lakota’s lasting refusal to accept compensation for the Black Hills. A billion and a half dollars divided among eight tribes could bring much-needed financial relief to families, reservation-wide. But for longer than a century, the Lakota have insisted, the Black Hills are not for sale.

“Our people have fought for this land and we will continue to,” said Tilsen, as he was getting arrested by sheriff’s deputies, Friday afternoon. “Our goal isn’t just to resist, but to radically imagine a better future.”

The concept of radical change has been central to Tilsen’s work at NDN Collective, a nonprofit organization that launched last year and works, in part, as a funding conduit for tribal nations and Indigenous activists.

The project grew from an annoying trend happening on the Pine Ridge reservation (the Oglala Nation). For decades, donors would dole out millions of dollars to reverse the reservation’s systemic inequalities, but yielding little results. Tilsen had a label for this: “armchair philanthropy.”

“[Philanthropists] were in New York City or California so far away from our problems, they had no idea how to solve it, and yet they wanted it on their terms.”

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At the core of the problem is a misunderstanding of Indigenous inequity; the Black Hills effect: an overwhelming lack of general awareness or understanding of the Indigenous timeline and the policies that have defined the Indigenous experience.

One example is the assumption of historians like Keri Leigh Merritt who argues that “blacks became the only race in the U.S. to start out, as an entire people, with close to zero capital.” But if Merritt is to suggest that Native American “capital” was their land, it completely diminishes the woeful legacy in which such “capital” was weaponized against them, subjecting tribe after tribe to impoverished living conditions on reservations, and manufacturing a culture of dependency on government programs.

“There’s active erasure of Indigenous people. We’re invisible to these people,” said Tilsen. “For me, that is a fundamental social justice issue.”

In the midst of a viral pandemic within a racially volatile one, both have revealed social inequalities for citizens of color, although a singular narrative simply will not address the complete disadvantages faced by all marginalized Americans, including those who were first to walk these lands. For Indian Country, it’s not reparations to demand full treaty rights — something the U.S. has already declared as supreme law. But it strikes at the very foundation of this country’s colonization.

Indianz.Com Live with Kevin Abourezk: Donald Trump in Sioux Nation Territory #LandBack #HonorTheTreaties (Part 2)

While treaty rights may not abolish white supremacy completely, fully honoring them can certainly curtail racism’s continuum. Of the nearly four-hundred treaties tribes signed with the U.S. government, every one of them has been broken. If we ignore this opportunity to address what the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights calls a “quiet crisis”, Americans everywhere may never grow from this historic opportunity to radically advance equity.

“When you start to dismantle white supremacy, this country ends up looking radically different than it looks like today,” said Tilsen. “It restores power to Black and Indigenous communities.”

Tilsen says it will take a process of sharing to realize that for this country to truly own up to its promises, it begins with returning the Black Hills. It’s time to honor the treaties.

Indianz.Com Live with Kevin Abourezk: Donald Trump in Sioux Nation Territory #LandBack #HonorTheTreaties (Part 3)

Jenni Monet is a journalist and tribal citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna. She reports on Indigenous rights and injustice in the U.S. and the world. This article originally appeared independently at Indigenously.

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