Tribal leaders in South Dakota plan to protest President Donald Trump’s appearance Friday at an elaborate Mount Rushmore fireworks display, arguing that the event could worsen the state’s coronavirus outbreak and violates Native Americans’ claims to the Black Hills.
The objections of seven Sioux tribal governments — all of whom had raised concerns when Trump officials were planning the trip — underscore how the president has become a polarizing figure regardless of where he travels in the United States. Critics of the president demonstrated outside his recent rallies in Tulsa, Okla., and Phoenix, and they will greet him once he returns to Washington on Saturday for the “Salute to America” celebration he has orchestrated to commemorate Independence Day.
National Park Service officials have not allowed pyrotechnics to be ignited at Mount Rushmore for more than a decade, out of concern that it could set off wildfires and contaminate local drinking water supplies. But Trump has pushed to resume fireworks at the memorial to four U.S. presidents, and this spring the Interior Department finalized an environmental assessment concluding that it would not pose a significant risk to either the land or its waterways.
But that same analysis indicated that six tribes who engaged in consultations with the department “expressed an overall objection to the event and its impacts.” Based on past pyrotechnic shows, the assessment concluded, resuming fireworks “would result in additional unexploded ordnance and debris on the landscape.”
In a meeting in late February, the document stated, tribal representatives emphasized, “The Black Hills landscape is a [traditional cultural property] for many tribes, and is inexplicably sacred.”
The U.S. government acknowledged the Great Sioux nation’s jurisdiction over the Black Hills in two treaties, in 1851 and 1868. Federal officials took over part of the area after gold was discovered there, and a 1980 Supreme Court decision rejected the Sioux’s claim that the land had been stolen from them.
James Ostler, a University of Oregon professor who specializes in the tribe’s history, said the Black Hills, and Mount Rushmore in particular, play a key role within the tribe’s spiritual beliefs. The mountain in which the monument is carved is called “Paha Sapa,” or the Six Grandfathers in the Sioux language, after the earth, sky and four directions.
For this reason, James Bear Runner, president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, said Trump’s event amounted to an act of arrogance and desecration.
“It’s like if he tried to go and have a fireworks display celebrating independence at the Vatican,” he said.
A July Fourth event at the site is pouring salt in a wound, said Ricky Gray Grass, a leader of the Oglala Sioux’s executive council. “The whole Black Hills is sacred. For them to come and carve the presidents, slave owners who have no meaning to us, it was an insult.”
Gray Grass said Sioux leaders met with federal and state officials as far back as February, including Rene Ohms, resource program manager at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. “They kind of just came in and listened. At the end, they kind of just blew us off … saying we’re still going to have this fireworks display,” Gray Grass said. After a second conference in mid-June held by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic, “it was the same thing.”
Trump had an obligation to discuss his plans with the Sioux, according to Gray Grass. “We’re a sovereign nation within five states; we have our own laws and our own rules,” he said.
Angered by what they considered a snub and motivated by the Black Lives Matter protests, young members of the tribe organized a protest, which the executive council backed. “They took our minerals, took our gold, took our water and have taken our forestry,” Gray Grass said. “It’s time our young people took that stance.”
The executive council received a tip that white supremacist groups intend to show up for the event, Gray Grass said. The tribe is taking steps to “protect our borders.” He wasn’t more specific about the origin of the tip, which could not be confirmed, or how the borders will be protected. “We are hoping to have no confrontations, but it will probably happen,” he said.
On Twitter earlier this week, the Democratic National Committee seized on the spiritual importance of the Black Hills, writing that the rally would be “glorifying white supremacy at Mount Rushmore — a region once sacred to tribal communities.”
A DNC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the tweet, which drew heavy backlash on conservative media sites and has since been deleted.
Ostler, the Oregon historian, said that in a moment when many Americans are beginning to understand deeper truths about the country’s history, Mount Rushmore might come under question, too.
“It is indeed a monument that assumes white supremacy,” Ostler said, “and that is celebrating an America that conquered Lakota people, took their land and put up a monument there without any thought to their views of it.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, three Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee asked the General Accountability Office to investigate the costs of the president’s Salute to America events. Calling them “de facto political events with official funds,” Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland requested to know the estimated costs to each federal department involved: Interior, Defense, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.
“Did all agency expenditures comply with the principles of Federal appropriations law,” the senators asked in the June 25 request. Concerned that the events could lead to large crowds and a virus outbreak, they asked: “Did the Trump administration and its event partners take the necessary steps to ensure that any public Fourth of July events fully conformed to public health recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?”
The National Park Service’s assessment concluded that after consulting with several tribes as well as experts and the public, “it is the superintendent’s professional judgment that there will be no impairment of park resources and values.”
Earlier drafts of the environmental assessment included a section on the event’s impact on human health and safety, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, which was not included in the final analysis. An earlier draft also suggested limiting attendance to 2,000 people, as opposed to the 7,500 who would be allowed under the current plan.
The state will not require attendees to wear masks or engage in social distancing, though Interior Department spokesman Nicholas Goodwin said in an email that park staff members will be encouraging such measures.
“A supply of cloth face coverings will be available and distributed on-site,” Goodwin said. “We are looking forward to a safe and successful event and hope everyone enjoys the extraordinary firework display after more than a decade hiatus at Mount Rushmore.”
State officials are monitoring weather conditions to determine whether it’s safe to ignite fireworks Friday. As of late Thursday morning, the state projected that there was moderate danger of fire. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 90s, and there is a chance of thunderstorms that could be accompanied by fast winds.
Joe Lowe, who served as fire chief for South Dakota’s Division of Wildland Fire between 2001 and 2012, said in a phone interview that the embers from pyrotechnics can quickly ignite dry pine needles on the memorial site, which is why his team always pre-positioned firefighting teams to snuff them out.
“So setting off fireworks in potentially dry fuels, in steep slopes, with high temperatures and possible downdraft winds from a thunderstorm may pose a fire risk,” Lowe said.
When asked how much the federal government is spending on the event, Goodwin did not specify. Some park advocates warn that congregating on public lands could pose a danger in light of the current coronavirus outbreak.
“Given how contagious COVID-19 is, we have been cautioning people about the crowded conditions in many national parks which might make social distancing extremely difficult,” said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association in an email. “The July Fourth holiday and planned celebrations in some national parks will attract visitors from around the country making these events more risky.”