47 Years Ago: Native Activists Occupied Mount Rushmore to Protest Treaty Violations

By Sameer Rao Aug 29, 2017

The U.S. government used flimsy treaties to control and subjugate Native peoples throughout the mid-to-late-1800s. One of those treaties, known alternately as the Sioux Treaty of 1868 and the Treaty of Fort Laramie, seemingly granted the Sioux autonomy over a reservation that included all of South Dakota’s land west of the Missouri River. Over a century later, on August 29, 1970, a group of Native activists protested repeated violations of that treaty by scaling and occupying a national monument—Mount Rushmore—within that territory.

The National Archives state that the government first violated the 1868 treaty just six years after it was signed, when General George A. Custer led a military expedition to the Black Hills. The Lakota Sioux regard these hills as sacred, but the government’s quest for the gold found in that range took precedence over tribal sovereignty. Miners flooded the area and demanded U.S. protection from Sioux peoples protecting their land, which lead to further military incursions and the U.S. seizing the land in 1877.

Nearly fifty years later, president Calvin Coolidge authorized workers to turn one of the Black Hills—"The Six Grandfathers," which PBS says the Lakota Sioux named after the Earth, sky and four directions—into a carved edifice bearing the faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. That hill eventually became Mount Rushmore National Memorial, named after a White businessman connected to the area’s growing mining economy.

The Lakota Sioux and other Native peoples’ growing anger at their genocide and colonization turned into direct action during the late-1960s and 1970s. As Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN) summarizes, 23 activists lead by the United Native Americans advocacy group climbed 3,000 feet to the mountain’s summit and occupied it for several months, renaming it "Crazy Horse Mountain" after the Oglala Lakota Sioux commander who died in U.S. military custody in 1877.

"We’re sick and tired of sitting back and turning the other cheek, and then bending over and getting those other two kicked,” United Native Americans president Lehman Brightman told CBS News in the above interview in 1970. “You’re going to see some wide-awake, educated Indians. We got some new Indians coming up, new warriors. This is a breeding ground, right here. You’re going to see a lot of spark." 

The occupation ended in November 1970. ICTMN says that 40 Native activists with the American Indian Movement climbed the mountain once again in June 1971 to demand treaty recognition. Unlike in 1970, the second occupation ended with 20 arrests.

A 2012 United Nations report recommended the U.S. government return the Black Hills area to the Sioux Nation. The Sioux Nation claims ownership of this land into the present day.