Indianz.Com > News > ‘Our sacred land and sites will remain at peace’: Court won’t force Fourth of July fireworks in Black Hills
A #LANDBACK protest against President Donald Trump during his visit to Mount Rushmore, located on Sioux Nation treaty territory in South Dakota, on July 3, 2020. Photo by Willi White, Courtesy NDN Collective
‘Our sacred land and sites will remain at peace’
Court won’t force Fourth of July fireworks on treaty territory in Black Hills
Thursday, June 3, 2021

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is declaring victory for treaty rights and sacred places in an ongoing war against the Republican governor of South Dakota.

Last summer, Gov. Kristi Noem (R) eagerly hosted then-president Donald Trump at Mount Rushmore for a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. The event drew strong protests from the tribe and its allies, who pointed out that the land where it took place was stolen from the Sioux Nation.

But if Noem were hoping for a return engagement under a new presidential administration, she is running out of options. In a 36-page decision on Wednesday, a federal judge blocked her efforts to force yet another display of American colonization on the tribe.

“Of course, we knew from the beginning that the Governor of the State of South Dakota did not make accurate statements to the court regarding participation of the Cheyenne River Sioux Sioux Tribe in the process of consultation,” Chairman Harold Frazier said in reaction to the ruling. “This is another example of the Governor overreaching her authority on federal land and treaty territory of the Great Sioux Nation.”

“This decision will greatly enhance the ability of all the people to gather medicine and pray without the intrusion of explosions or lights,” Frazier added. “Our sacred land and sites will remain at peace while still being the sanctuary for the animals that can still call the Black Hills home or rely on the sanctuary for their journeys.”

Despite being rebuked by Judge Roberto A. Lange, Noem plans to keep fighting both the tribe and the Joe Biden administration. Even though the event is slated to take place barely a month away on July 3, she plans to take the case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, prolonging the bitter battle further.

“The Biden administration cancelled South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore Fireworks Celebration on completely arbitrary grounds,” Noem asserted on Wednesday. “I am disappointed that the court gave cover to this unlawful action with today’s decision.”

“But rest assured, this fight is not over,” the Republican executive continued. “My legal team will appeal so that we can return the Fireworks Celebration to Mount Rushmore and celebrate our nation’s birthday at America’s Shrine to Democracy for next year and in the future.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Noem had not yet filed an appeal in the 8th Circuit. In her lawsuit — which attracted the attention of Republican officials from 17 states — she requested, and was granted, expedited status in order to force a decision before July 4.

Should Noem proceed with the case, Cheyenne River and its advocates stand ready. But attorney Nicole Ducheneaux, who represents the tribe, characterized the entire affair as a charade, aimed at boosting the governor’s appeal among Republicans, many of whom continue to believe in the false premise that Trump didn’t actually lose the 2020 election.

“In light of the high burden in this case, which the state did little to meet, Governor Noem’s lawsuit does not appear to have been a serious effort to win an injunction,” said Ducheneaux, a Cheyenne River citizen. “Instead, it looks more like a piece of political theater aimed at exciting the Trump-Noem base.”

“We are dismayed that Governor Noem has used the federal court to jeopardize our religious freedoms and our beautiful American landscape in service of her political ambitions,” added Ducheneaux, from the Native-owned Big Fire Law and Policy Group. “The Lakota people have been fighting to protect our sacred Black Hills for nearly 200 years. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is committed to finishing this fight in the Eighth Circuit and beyond if Governor Noem wants to take it there.”

The current dispute began when the Biden administration denied Noem a permit to stage the Independence Day fireworks display at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Though the site is currently controlled by the U.S. government, it lies within territory promised to the Sioux Nation by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

The history of the broken treaty was laid out in the decision on Wednesday.

“Though that treaty preserved the Black Hills as part of the Great Sioux Indian Reservation, a gold rush beginning in the 1870s resulted in abrogation of the treaty and dispossession of the Black Hills from the Lakota, which ninety years later prompted the Supreme Court of the United States to observe: ‘A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history,’ the judge wrote.

Noem’s lawsuit notably names Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland as the defendant. In making history as the first Native person named to a presidential cabinet, she noted that a predecessor in her role “once proclaimed it his goal to, quote, ‘civilize or exterminate’ us.”

“I’m a living testament to the failure of that horrific ideology,” Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, remarked before winning confirmation as the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior, where she oversees public sites like Mount Rushmore.

A quote from the U.S. Court of Claims decision in the Sioux Nation’s Black Hills land claim case appears on a sign on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Hamner_Fotos

Not long before Haaland took office on March 18, the National Park Service denied Noem’s request for the fireworks display. In court papers, government attorneys pointed out that the Trump administration approved the 2020 permit over the objections of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and other Indian nations.

“You can put all the lettuce and tomatoes and cheese on a rotten piece of meat, but that meat is still rotten,” a tribal historic preservation officer was quoted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Dakota as saying. “That’s what happens at some of these meetings. All this is, is dressing and we have to eat that rotten sandwich.”

“Just once it would be good to walk away from a meeting and knowing that the federal agency actually listened to us and takes our comments and concerns seriously and do that,” the representative of the Spirit Lake Nation said when Trump was still around.

Despite written records existing of the “consultation” that took place last year, Chairman Frazier said Gov. Noem misrepresented what happened during the prior administration in hopes of getting her way on the Fourth of July.

“It is unfortunate that the time, energy and resources we spend in conflict cannot be better spent providing the opportunity for our communities to have peace and prosperity,” Frazier said.

The fireworks fiasco, as the Big Fire firm put it, isn’t Noem’s first attempt to run roughshod over the tribe. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, she threatened to bring legal action unless Cheyenne River removed coronavirus checkpoints on the reservation.

Noem never made good on her threat and the tribe kept operating the checkpoints to ensure that outsiders weren’t bringing the deadly virus into the community. But she found a willing ally in the Trump administration, as a top White House official attempted to exert pressure on Frazier in hopes of punishing him for standing up to the Republican governor.

“Well, I guess she’s had complaints of people coming to a checkpoint on, I guess there is one federal road and one U.S. road where there is a complaint,” Mark Meadows, who was serving as chief of staff to Trump, told Frazier on a call last June, according to a transcript filed in federal court as part of a lawsuit separate from the fireworks debacle.

The White House took the pressure campaign even further. Tara Sweeney, a Trump appointee who was the first Alaska Native person to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, threatened to cut law enforcement funding to the tribe, according to court documents.

“In order for the tribe to retain its law enforcement contracts or to avoid emergency reassumption, there were some immediate steps that needed to take place,” Sweeney told Frazier on a follow-up call that included a second White House official.

As the dispute dragged on into the fall, Sweeney refused to let the matter go. In a previously unreported incident, she was even prepared to send Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation to take down the checkpoints, giving Noem and Trump a major boost ahead of the November presidential election.

Indianz.Com Video: An Interview with Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier

According to people who were briefed on the matter, the BIA began amassing a significant number of law enforcement officers in South Dakota shortly before the election. Word quickly spread through the tight-knight Indian Country public safety community about the potential for a dangerous confrontation there.

“This could have gotten someone killed,” one veteran law enforcement figure told Indianz.Com of the disaster that was narrowly averted.

A second person who was briefed said the exercise was called off only after the Department of Justice got word and intervened. But it’s not clear whether carrying it out would have made a difference, as Trump ended up losing the presidential vote even as he carried South Dakota by 26 percentage points.

As the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden has sought to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship between tribes and the federal government. He has mandated all agencies update their consultation policies to ensure that Indian nations aren’t always forced to consume that “rotten sandwich” that’s often left on the table for them.

And while the judge in Noem’s lawsuit recognized that a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore, where the faces of American presidents have been carved into the sacred landscape, might help bring some joy to the nation, especially after COVID-19 and the deadly January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol that was encouraged by Trump and his supporters, he also said the needs of tribes should be taken into account.

“A fireworks event at the Memorial does cause some harm to the federal-tribal relationship that has been frayed through the years,” Judge Lange noted.

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