Stephen Groves, Associated Press, March 24, 2021
When then-President Donald Trump visited Mount Rushmore last year for a fireworks display, Lakota activist Nick Tilsen saw an opportunity to further a goal of returning to Native American tribes control of land they once held.
It would land him in jail, facing felony charges after he organized a demonstration to block a road leading to the monument, but it also made Mount Rushmore a focal point for that effort, known as the Land Back Movement.
Now Tilsen, who heads a Rapid City, South Dakota-based Indigenous advocacy organization called NDN Collective, has a plan to make dramatic changes at Mount Rushmore by turning it over to tribal control. But that plan puts him in direct conflict with top Republicans in the state like Gov. Kristi Noem, who say it should be preserved as a celebration of America, complete with an annual Independence Day fireworks display.
While Noem got her wishes last year when fireworks returned to the monument after a decade-long hiatus, Trump’s visit also allowed Tilsen to bring attention to the symbolic importance of the monument, where 60-foot (18-meter) stone carvings of former Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln tower over the Black Hills — land that was seized illegally from Lakota tribes.
“What Mount Rushmore has always represented is a system of power and oppression and white supremacy, because they take a sacred place and carved the faces of white men who are responsible for our colonization and our demise,” Tilsen said.
Tilsen recently reached an agreement with prosecutors that the charges would be dropped if he completes a prison diversion program. Though prosecutors say that part of the program is admitting wrongdoing and ensuring that offenses don’t happen again, Tilsen told the Associated Press he is not done pressing for changes to the monument and the Black Hills.
“For Indigenous people, racial equity means returning Indigenous lands back into Indigenous hands,” he said.
For the Lakota, the Black Hills are known as Paha Sapa — “the heart of everything that is” — and for Tilsen, they are central to racial justice.