SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A Lakota activist who was arrested while leading a protest before former president Donald Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore last year said he has negotiated with prosecutors to drop charges against him, which carried a punishment of nearly 17 years in prison.
Nick Tilsen, the president of an Indigenous advocacy organization called NDN Collective, told The Associated Press that he will participate in a prison diversion program in exchange for all but one charge against him being dropped. He cast the deal as a victory for Indigenous organizers who have been calling for public lands that once belonged to tribes to be returned to tribal control.
“It’s a victory for the movement,” Tilsen said. “Any time you try to prosecute organizers and leaders of this movement it’s a strategy to try to weaken the movement.”
The final charge, simple assault of a law enforcement officer, will be dropped once he completes the program, he said, adding that charges against other protesters will also be dropped as well.
The Pennington County State’s Attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request to confirm the charges were dropped.
Tilsen had helped organize the demonstration near Mount Rushmore on July 3 to call for the Black Hills, which were seized from the Lakota despite treaties with the United States, to be returned to Indigenous control. For the Lakota people, the area is sacred and known as Paha Sapa — “the heart of everything that is.”
Law enforcement officers, including the South Dakota National Guard, confronted the protesters after they used vans to form a blockade on a road leading to Mount Rushmore. As law enforcement officers advanced on the blockade, protesters scuffled with the officers and Tilsen took a shield from one officer, the Rapid City Journal reported.
Tilsen was not charged with physically assaulting officers, but instead using “physical menace or credible threat” to put them “in fear of imminent bodily harm,” according to the Rapid City Journal.
But Tilsen said the move by prosecutors to dismiss most charges showed the effectiveness of a campaign organized by NDN Collective. They had gathered over 20,000 signatures from an online petition and sent hundreds of letters and phone calls to the prosecutor’s office, according to Tilsen.
“It’s great that we’re having a social and racial reckoning in this country,” Tilsen said. “For Indigenous people and for the Lakota, it’s really about land because you take Mount Rushmore — well, Mount Rushmore is built on stolen land, carved by a member of the KKK.”
The monument was conceived in the 1920s as a tourist draw for the new fad in vacationing called the road trip. South Dakota historian Doane Robinson recruited sculptor Gutzon Borglum to abandon his work creating the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in Georgia, which was to feature Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson.
Borglum was affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan as he raised money for the Confederate monument, according to historians.
Tilsen’s calls to close Mount Rushmore put him at odds with Gov. Kristi Noem and other top Republicans in the state. She has ardently defended the monument, which is so connected to the state’s identity that it adorns most license plates.
“Those four men are etched into Mount Rushmore are incredibly important to our history,” the governor told Fox News this month. “We saw a movement to tear them down earlier this year. They needed to be protected.”
However, the National Park Service has said it will not allow the state to have another fireworks display on July 4 this year, due to both safety concerns and the objections of local objections. But Noem has indicated she will keep battling for the Independence Day display.