Group gathers during 50th anniversary of the Mount Rushmore occupation
KEYSTONE, S.D. — On Saturday, a gathering was held at Mount Rushmore’s amphitheater marking the 50th anniversary of the monument’s occupation by supporters of indigenous rights.
The event, led by United Native Americans Inc., expected 50 people to attend the actual event, however guests to the park where supporters of indigenous rights were expected to speak during the event, held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in addition to a group prayer.
Dr. Lehman Brightman, founder and leader of UNA led the months-long occupation of the national monument in 1970, centered around the federal government’s’ failure to honor their promises to the tribes. Now, 50 years after the fact the landscape and the people have changed, but the messaging is still the same – liberty and justice for all.
“That’s why I flew 2,000 miles to come out here,” says Lehman’s son and the current leader of UNA, Quanah Parker Brightman. “That’s why I spent my hard-earned money to come out here. That’s why I came out here in a good way to bring a voice to the voiceless, and of course, my people, my nation. We’re still fighting for resolution in regards to this conflict with the state, with the governor and the system.”
Not to forget the Wounded Knee occupation that followed in 1973. Hundreds of followers of the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over the town of Wounded Knee, in the Pine Ridge Reservation, demanding reform in the government’s treatment of natives.
People died after federal marshals surrounded and a siege began. The town is where, a century prior, hundreds of men, women and children were massacred by U.S. troops. One of those deaths, the ancestor of Lehman and son, Quanah, the current leader of the UNA.
Brightman describes Mount Rushmore’s occupation as one of the first uprisings following the Battle of Little Bighorn, again a century before in 1876. Lieut. Col. George A. Custer led U.S. troops into a battle that resulted in the slaying of himself along with all of his troops. The battle itself was a result of the tumultuous relations between the federal government and the Native Americans.
In honor of his family’s legacy and the many Lakota that fought, and perhaps died to defend their land, Quanah flew from his home in San Francisco to be in sacred the Paha Sapa (Black Hills). It is said to be the site of the Lakota Sioux’s origin story, now carved over with four U.S. presidents.
Much like the original occupations, Native Americans and supporters are demanding the return of the sacred Black Hills. They are also asking for the return of the gold mined by Homestake Mine and Hearst Corporation, along with asking for the National Parks Service and Department of the Interior to begin retiring the monument so it can be reclaimed by Native Americans.
In 1868, the Lakota were promised they would have their land back. But after the discovery of gold, the federal government rescinded.
The Supreme Court acknowledged the “stolen land” in a 1980 ruling, centuries after the massacre at Wounded Knee. They were willing to pay reparations in the amount of $1 billion to the Native Americans, but the offer was denied.
“We don’t want money for the land. But we should be entitled to the gold you stole from us,” says Quanah. “We are here to ask and demand that Mt. Rushmore be retired, that this site be removed. This monument needs to be torn down.”
Governor Kristi Noem (R) has made it clear that the monument will not be removed on her watch, stating, “To those who would threaten America’s Shrine of Democracy, I have one simple message for you: Not on my watch.”
Amid the outcry for the removal of statues resembling leaders with controversial pasts, Governor Noem has denounced the removal of the statues and Mt. Rushmore:
“We can learn from their successes, and we can also learn from their mistakes,” says Gov. Noem. “In doing so, we must continue to fight for the American ideal that each of them spent their lives striving for: “All men are created equal.”
Amid protests for racial justice across the U.S., the Republican National Convention. Noem spoke of President Donald Trump’s values and leadership and that of the Republican Party, but also condemned the protests occurring.
“Our party respects based on who they are,” Gov. Noem said. “We don’t divide people based on their beliefs or their roots. We don’t shun people who think for themselves. We respect everyone equally under the Constitution.”
Now, as they did 50 years prior, Native Americans partnered in support with the Black Lives Matter movement in the spirit of equality for all.
“I have noticed around the country, Columbus statues are being removed,” says Quanah. “It’s time this statue be removed.”