In 1970, Indians led by United Native Americans (UNA) organizers occupied South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore National Memorial for more than a week and asserted the right of the Lakota (a Sioux tribe) to reclaim the Black Hills. On August 29, the 38th anniversary of the occupation’s onset, a small group of Lakota peacefully gathered at the memorial’s amphitheater to share cultural experiences and commemorate the historic event.
The historical roots of Native American displeasure with Black Hills developments like the Mount Rushmore National Memorial run very deep. The Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota were sacred to the Lakota and other plains Indians long before rapid economic exploitation of this landscape got underway with the gold rush of the 1870s.
It is highly germane that this incursion was illegal, and that Indians were wantonly killed or driven from land that had been treaty-promised to them in perpetuity. The Indian viewpoint is now, and for over a century has been, that the Black Hills were stolen and should be returned to the Lakota. (The UNA website link provided above portrays this viewpoint quite stridently.)
In the 1960s and 1970s, some Native American groups became quite confrontational as they asserted perceived rights to reclaim lands taken long ago by chicanery or outright theft that was condoned (if not sanctioned) by the state and federal governments. Primarily to get media attention and perhaps sway public opinion to their side, Indian groups held demonstrations at various state- and federally-owned sites. Some sites, including a few national parks or parks-to-be, were even occupied for a time. Among these were Alcatraz Island (occupied for 18 months in 1969-1970 and now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area) and the Mount Rushmore Memorial (occupied for 10 days in 1978).
Many of us older folks have vivid memories of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which was responsible for the 1972 seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, DC, and 1973’s 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee, a historically-significant town on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This latter incident, a particularly ugly one, led to some shootings and several deaths.
Native Americans and Native Hawaiians have recently begun to reassert more often and more vigorously their tribal or ethnic claims to various national park lands as well as their desire for more respectful treatment of their cultural history in park exhibits, programs, and other features (including park names). Regular readers of Traveler will recall that we’ve recently reported on native people issues at Badlands National Park, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Haleakala National Park, and Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.
Lakota culture is already on display at Mount Rushmore five days a week at Heritage Village, a cluster of three tipis off the Presidential Trail walkway. Native Americans work there as cultural interpreters, practicing traditional arts and answering questions about Indian history and culture. community. The park's superintendent (himself a Native American) has taken some heat from critics who believe that the Indian exhibit at Mount Rushmore is inappropriate and provocative.
Event anniversaries of special significance offer tribes or Indian organizations opportunities to gather at meaningful places to share cultural experiences, express solidarity, and draw public attention to their continuing claims for land restoration and more respectful treatment. This past Friday, August 29, was just such an occasion.
On that date, a United Native Americans-sponsored contingent staged a small, brief, and peaceful gathering in the amphitheater at Mount Rushmore to commemorate the UNA occupation of the memorial in 1970. Exercising his First Amendment rights, Quanah Parker Brightman, whose father Lehman Brightman (a Lakota) organized the occupation in 1970, had obtained a permit for the event. The gathering drew about 30 Indians, lasted four hours, and featured some speeches, ceremonies, and special musical performances.
Lehman Brightman himself was among the speakers. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with his Vietnam-era rhetoric, this is a man who, while a Ph.D. student at Berkeley in 1970, had this to say to a Time magazine reporter:
"It's time that Indians got off their goddam asses and stopped letting white people lead them around by their noses…….Even the name Indian is not ours. It was given to us by some dumb honky who got lost and thought he'd landed in India."
Get the picture?
Acting Chief Ranger Mark Gorman reported that the UNA-sponsored event at Mount Rushmore did not disrupt park operations or interfere with normal visitor activities.
As far as the Lakota and their supporters are concerned, whether this gathering and similar events will have a long term impact on Mount Rushmore’s management – and perhaps its ownership? – remains very much an open question. Should it be?