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The Battle for the Black Hills

Nick Tilsen was arrested for protesting President Trump at Mount Rushmore. Now, his legal troubles are part of a legacy.

... “permanent importance” meant that “ten thousand years from now” Americans would meditate in reverence here. Almost a century later, Trump proclaimed, “Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.” The crowd chanted, “USA! USA! USA!”

... “permanent importance” meant that “ten thousand years from now” Americans would meditate in reverence here. Almost a century later, Trump proclaimed, “Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.” The crowd chanted, “USA! USA! USA!”

LAKOTA PEOPLE HAVE OCCUPIED the Black Hills for generations. In 1970, at the height of the Red Power movement, John (Fire) Lame Deer, a Lakota holy man, climbed the monument and sat on Teddy Roosevelt’s head, “giving him a headache, maybe.” Native students and activists had taken over Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay a year earlier. Lame Deer was at a protest camp on top of the monument, with a banner that read “Red Power — Indian Land.”

Frustrated by getting no response from the federal government, Lizzy Fast Horse, a Lakota grandmother and one of the camp’s founders, and some accomplices decided to take back the Black Hills themselves. Fast Horse was among those calling for the United States to return 200,000 acres of Oglala Lakota land that had been confiscated during World War II for a gunnery and bombing range. She and two other Lakota women hid from park rangers and police, braving lightning storms as they made their way up the mountain. “We got braver and braver, and now we’re not afraid of anyone,” Fast Horse said at the time. Lee Brightman, the Lakota founder of United Native Americans, explained the camp’s goals: “We want payment for the Black Hills, for all the minerals mined, for the timber taken out. And we want our sacred mountains back.”

Those demands go far back, according to Charmaine White Face, the first Oglala woman spokesperson for the Sioux Nation Treaty Council. “It was illegal to talk about the (1868) treaty” when the treaty council formed in 1894, “just like the language was prohibited, just like our religion was prohibited by the American government.” But times have changed: White Face believes that her grandmother’s treaty knowledge, which survived government suppression, can be useful for the “land back” campaign.

This history is why Nick Tilsen loves the slogan. “You have elders saying ‘land back,’ ” he chuckles. “You want your land back? Hell yeah, I want my land back. I’ve been wanting my land back.” No one owns the phrase, he said; it “has lived in the spirit of the people for a long time.”

“Not only has this been a long generational battle, it is also part of this current moment,” said Krystal Two Bulls. The Northern Cheyenne and Oglala Lakota military veteran heads NDN Collective’s LandBack campaign, which was launched last Indigenous Peoples’ Day with the goal of returning public lands in the Black Hills to the Oceti Sakowin, starting with Mount Rushmore. “Public land is the first manageable bite,” she said, “then we’re coming for everything else.” This would usher an era of free and prior informed consent; tribes would form meaningful partnerships to promote land stewardship and equitable housing, and address more than a century of wrongdoings.

In the Black Hills, the idea has traction. In 1987, New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, a former New York Knicks basketball player, introduced legislation drafted by Lakota people to return 1.3 million acres, targeting Park Service land, not private land. The bill died in committee. Two Bulls sees land ...