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‘Return the Black Hills’ chant greets Trump

Nearly 400 Natives rally in opposition of Trump and Noem’s visit to Mount Rushmore

Rally leader Nick Tilsen, released on bond after three nights in jail: “Mount Rushmore is on stolen Lakota land.”
COURTESY/Chynna Locket


KEYSTONE – U.S. President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign-stop here at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial on July 3 provoked a rally of some 400 Native Americans and allies, who seized the opportunity to remind him he was trespassing on sacred Black Hills Indian treaty land stolen in violation of the Constitution.

“What do we want? Land back. When do we want it? Now!” was the prevailing chant of the multitude.

It succeeded in drawing worldwide attention to the Constitutional cause by blocking an access route to the memorial, delaying some of the more than 7,000 Trump campaign supporters who had paid to attend the private event at the public venue.

“Mount Rushmore is on stolen Lakota land and its very existence is a symbol of white supremacy,” said Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of the Rapid City-based national non-profit NDN Collective, which initiated the action.

“In opposing the ongoing desecration of our sacred land and asking for return of Lakota lands where Mount Rushmore is situated, we’re not saying anything that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents haven’t already said,” Tilsen noted.

With a classic show of civil disobedience, demonstrators disabled tires on several late-model white vans parked across all four lanes of the blacktop highway connecting the town of Keystone to the national park visitors center, then stood by, singing, shouting and waving banners, as well as an Oglala Sioux tribal nation flag, for four hours until law enforcement mobilized to suppress the action.

Helicopters repeated flyovers as Pennington County Sheriff’s deputies, South Dakota Highway Patrol, Homeland Security, National Guard, U.S. Secret Service, USDA Forest Service, park rangers, police in riot gear, and other armed personnel joined forces to tow the vans, clear the roadblock, and arrest dissidents.

Covering the activity for independent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Radio KILI, Arlo Iron Cloud reported shots fired toward the feet of rally participants. Law enforcement insisted he leave his hillside observation post and move to the highway area surrounded by weaponized professionals, even when he objected that he was working media.

Tensions rose as patrol members donned gas masks. No tear gas discharges were verified but some of the unarmed demonstrators were sprayed with mace, according to legal observers. “Every conflict was police-initiated,” said legal observer Bruce Ellison, an attorney on NDN Collective’s legal team.

The team’s conversations with sheriff and other local officers in advance of the direct action aimed to assure law enforcement that no use of force would be necessary as plans were for peaceful assembly; if outside armed reinforcements had not arrived, the road would have been cleared in half the time, Ellison observed.

“Some of the over-reaction we were seeing was just a tip-off for the Keystone XL Pipeline,” he said, referring to fears that the state will repress civil rights of native oil pipeline fighters, such as Tilsen, if building continues.

Eventually, from somewhere near one of several formations of camouflage-suited and shield-carrying troopers, a loudspeaker announcement warned four times, “This is an unlawful assembly. Disperse immediately.” Verbal retorts ensued: “You are unlawful. Why don’t you disperse?”

After many demonstrators avoided arrest by clearing out, ranks of uniformed agents advanced on the remaining targets and zip-tied their hands behind their backs, taking them into custody — all to taunts of “You stole this land” but no resistance.

A transport van escorted at least a dozen detainees from there to the Pennington County office complex for booking and jail. They were released on July 4, except for Tilsen, who was held until his bond hearing July 6.

Tilsen was released on $2,000 cash bond to face criminal charges of second-degree robbery, which carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence, and simple assault of a law enforcement officer, which carries a maximum two-year sentence.

He also faces a misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and impeding traffic, which have one-year maximum jail penalty, as well as petty misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, with a maximum 30-day sentence.

Tilsen is an outspoken opponent of oil pipeline construction through unceded 1851 and 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty territory, which includes the Black Hills.

The U.S. Supreme Court In 1980 awarded $105 million to the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation for the theft of the Black Hills and other lands guaranteed under the 1868 treaty, which had promised the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, “the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Great Sioux Reservation.”

“A more ripe and rank case of dishonest dealing may never be found in our history,” Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said in his opinion of the U.S. failure to enforce the treaty language as required by the U.S. Constitution.

Three decades later, the interest on the money in the U.S. Treasury has brought the offer to upwards of $1.4 billion. However, insisting that “the Black Hills are not for sale,” the Sioux Nation tribes refuse to accept a payout and have lobbied for a settlement to return them the portion of the Black Hills that is under federal management.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem invited Trump to hold the campaign event here on the eve of the national Independence Day annual celebration. Ellsworth Airforce Base provided a Blue Angels fighter jet air show at the occasion. Fireworks over the mountain carving of four presidents capped the incumbent candidate’s discourse.

Trump launched the speech, thanking Noem and saying, “There could be no better place to celebrate America’s independence than beneath this magnificent, incredible, majestic mountain and monument to the greatest Americans who have ever lived.”

He neglected to mention the descendants of the original inhabitants here and only once mentioned the coronavirus pandemic, which logged a record number of cases nationwide that day.

“Let us also send our deepest thanks to our wonderful veterans, law enforcement, first responders and the doctors, nurses and scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus,” he said. In response to this Native Sun News Today Editor Tim Giago, a veteran of the Korean War, said, “I am totally appalled at the now proven fact that he knew the Russians had paid Taliban fighters bounties to kill American soldiers. Where in the hell is the national outrage?”

Noem declared in advance that no protocols would be in force on this occasion to protect spread of the pandemic, despite Trump’s recent exposure to a staffer tested positive for the uncontrolled lethal virus at an Oklahoma campaign-stop during the outbreak’s June surge there.

With cases at their U.S. peak, the deliberate absence of requirements for masking, distancing, and other public safety measures at a national gathering drew harsh criticism from South Dakota tribal government leaders.

“It’s incredible that this Administration is playing with our lives for a photo-op,” said Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chair Harold Frazier, “especially after members of the President’s own advance team and Secret Service tested positive following his irresponsible Tulsa rally.”

Frazier joined Oglala Sioux Tribal Chair Julian Bear Runner and Rosebud Sioux Tribe Chair Rodney Bordeaux in denouncing the Trump Administration’s “retaliatory measures” against the tribes for posting coronavirus health checkpoints along reservation roads.

Frazier has sued Trump for threats to tribal sovereignty in the recent U.S. Interior Department’s response to Noem’s plea for help to close down the roadside stations.

“Now he’s hosting an over-the-top fireworks display in our sacred Black Hills, while he doles out retribution against our tribal governments,” Frazier said. “And for what? For doing what he failed to do—protecting people from a deadly virus.”

Interior and its BIA administrators said they would pull pandemic relief funding and a law enforcement contract support if Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe doesn’t do Noem’s bidding.


(Contact Talli Nauman at

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