The Sioux Nation, South Dakota, and Five Presidents

Amidst coronavirus and Black Lives Matter, President Trump has done what the news media and the public couldn’t seem to get to—bring attention to American Indians. Concocting something with the Republican governor of South Dakota, Trump is engineered a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore, site of the mountain carvings of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. There’s been a ten-year lapse since the last such celebration due to forest fire danger—but not this year.

The mountain carvings were completed in 1941 on land that had been left to the Sioux twice with treaties in the 19th century. In a familiar series of events, gold was found, miners rushed in, and Custer galumphed in to “make it safe” for the white invaders. The mountain had been sacred to the Sioux before the carving, before Custer.

Trump didn’t check with the Indians before planning the extravaganza. Sioux President Julian Bear Runner said that Mr. Trump’s attendance is “an insult to Native Americans on whose stolen land it was built… lands on which that mountain is carved and the lands he’s about to visit belong to the Great Sioux nation, and I have to tell him he doesn’t have permission from its original sovereign owners to enter the territory at this time.” He also cited health concerns, important, as Governor Kristi Noem confirmed that attendees are not required to practice social distancing or wear masks.

It had never occurred to me—and we visited often when I was young—that the presidents on Rushmore are all an insult to the Sioux:

Washington did want to treat “justly” with Indians, but he also wanted their land, by sale and treaty if possible, war if not.

Jefferson’s vision for America was sea to shining sea with white yeoman farmers, settlers who would replace the savages; in the Declaration of Independence he wrote of “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”

Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862, giving an easy path for white settlers to take Indian lands. And he hung 38 Sioux at Mankato, Minnesota in the same year. The Indians had balked at reduced lands and broken promises.

Teddy Roosevelt apparently softened towards Indian in the end, but didn’t think them equal. And told photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis, who had learned the true story, that the real story of Custer should not reach the American public; Custer must remain a hero.

Trump stands tall among them.

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