- By Darren Thompson
A House subcommittee this week considered the third attempt at a bill that would block future efforts to remove or rename Mount Rushmore, which Native Americans have long said is built on stolen, sacred Indigenous land.
The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hosted a legislative hearing Thursday to hear testimony on the Mount Rushmore Protection Act. The bill, H.R. 386, was introduced by U.S. Representative Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) and is his third effort to pass the bill in the halls of Capitol Hill. The bill aims to prohibit the use of federal funds in any efforts to alter, change, destroy or remove the monument
The legislation drew rebukes from a Native American advocacy group with ties to Mount Rushmore, as well as the National Park Service (NPS), which called the bill “unnecessary.”
“Mt. Rushmore is, and will always be, a symbol of white supremacy and American hypocrisy,” NDN Collective CEO Nick Tilsen said in an interview with Native News Online. “It’s literally built on stolen Lakota lands carved by a member of the Klu Klux Klan. These faces are responsible for the murdering of Indigenous people, and are literally the founding fathers of American Genocide.”
During the hearing, NPS Deputy Director Michael Reynolds testified that the bill’s language could create unintended consequences that would threaten the agency’s ability to care for the memorial.
“We share the goals of what’s happening with the protection of Mount Rushmore in perpetuity,” Reynolds said.
In his support of the bill, Rep. Johnson cited a previous experience where he was mentoring a group of 14-year-old boys in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is located, and they were impressed.
“George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt—these are imperfect men,” Johnson said during the hearing. “They're not up there because of their imperfections, they’re on the monument because of their strengths, because of the values they have brought to our country.
“The Mount Rushmore Act is very clear, we are not going to use one nickel of taxpayer dollars to try to tear down that monument or to change its name,” Johnson said. “That doesn't come without threat.”
Johnson cited the changing of the name of the tallest peak in the Black Hills to Black Elk’s Peak as a reason why legislation was needed.
“It wasn’t all that long ago that South Dakota's tallest peak was renamed without a vote of the people, without any acquiescence of the governor or the state legislature or people from the area,” he said. “They just decided ‘your tallest mountain will be renamed if you like it or not.'”
During his remarks, Johnson failed to mention the history behind the moniker of the former Harney Peak, which was named for an army officer accused of massacring Native people, or the fact that the name was changed by the 133-year old federal body responsible by law for establishing and maintaining uniform name usage throughout the federal government.
In 2016, the U.S. Board on Geological Names,changed the name of the 7,242-foot peak to honor one of the most revered Lakota cultural leaders, Nicholas Black Elk. Currently, there is an effort led by the Rapid City Catholic Diocese to canonize Black Elk. If the local diocese is successful, Nicholas Black Elk would be just the second Indigenous person from the Western Hemisphere, or the New World, to be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Johnson also cited various elected officials, and their comments to specifically remove, or change, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Their comments to remove, or change, the monument comes from Johnson’s observations of many other statues that have been recently removed. Not long ago, the statue of Theodore Roosevelt was removed from the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Johnson introduced South Dakota State Senator Helene Duhamel as the witness for his bill. “I join you today in support of H.R. 386, the Mount Rushmore Protection Act, as introduced by Representative Johnson,” she said at Thursday's hearing. “Deep in the heart of the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota rises a colossal sculpture carved from granite that stands as a tribute to democracy.”
“For Dusty Johnson to push forward H.R. 386 clearly shows his racially and politically motivated stance to not tell the true history of this nation and attempt to erase the original peoples of this land,” NDN Collective CEO Tilsen told Native News Online. “Dusty Johnson’s name will be right next to many other racist in the history books, where it belongs.”
In 2020, NDN Collective organized a demonstration near the Mount Rushmore National Memorial during former President Donald Trump’s participation in a firework display at the national park in South Dakota’s Black Hills on July 3. The demonstration came in the midst of the former president superseding a decade-long ban on pyrotechnics issued by the National Park Service because of safety and environmental concerns. The nudge to host the firework display also came despite federal officials warning the public against large gatherings, because of Covid-19 precautions.
Native News Online reported that the July 3 demonstration led to the arrests of twenty adults and one juvenile by the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. Tilsen was arrested and charged with second-degree robbery and grand theft in the alternative, as well as two counts of simple assault against law enforcement officers and three other misdemeanor crimes: standing on a highway with intense to impede-stop traffic, failure to vacate/ordered to leave, and disorderly conduct-unlawful assembly. Tilsen’s felony charges stem from allegedly stealing a shield from a female Air National Guardsman and assaulting her, all felony crimes in South Dakota.
In March 2021, Pennington County offered to drop charges against all other individuals arrested for the demonstration near Mount Rushmore if Tilsen pled guilty and participated in a prison diversion program. If he completed the program, his charges would also be dropped. On December 13, 2022, Pennington County announced in an email to Tilsen’s attorneys that all charges against Tilsen have been dismissed by the state.
More than 8,000 bills are introduced each Congress, and only a few hundred receive a committee hearing.
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