KEYSTONE, S.D. — Protesters clashed with National Guard troops and sheriff deputies after blockading the main road leading to the entrance of Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota on Friday afternoon, July 3, hours before President Donald Trump was scheduled to preside over a fireworks show there.
About 150 protesters, many from Native American tribes with deep historical and spiritual claims to the Black Hills, out of which the faces of four presidents were carved, rallied against Trump's visit, racial injustice, white supremacy and their treatment at the hands of the U.S. government. They held signs that said "this is stolen land" and "honor the treaties," and chanted "no justice, no peace."
The hours-long blockade set up a showdown with a military police unit of the South Dakota National Guard, clad in riot gear and Pennington County sheriff deputies. The protesters were told they were taking part in an unlawful assembly, then the armored military police and deputy sheriffs advanced on the protesters and pepper sprayed about 10 as they sought to clear U.S. Highway 16A, just inside the monument's borders.
The standoff ended at about 7 p.m., after some negotiation between protesters and law enforcement resulted in many of the youth and elders at the protest stepping away to not be caught in any further conflict. But about 15 protesters stood defiant in the road as they were surrounded by law enforcement and arrested, then placed into white vans for transport.
Moments later, Trump flew nearby in Marine One, escorted by several helicopters, on his way to Mount Rushmore. The National Guard and law enforcement units drove down through Keystone, to cheers from the event attendees gathered along the road to watch the impending fireworks.
The protest hadn't seemed likely to end up in conflict. Earlier Friday afternoon, several groups who were part of the protest marched through downtown Keystone, a small tourist town at the base of the road to Mount Rushmore now teeming with Trump fans buying Trump hats and T-shirts. "Four more years," many along the sidewalks shout in response to the protesters.
The marchers met up with more protesters who had gathered just down the road from checkpoint for ticket holders to the fireworks event. The crowd chanted slogans and some danced to traditional songs as attendees bound for Mount Rushmore drove by. The organizers of the protest had insisted on the event's Facebook page that no riots or violence would be tolerated.
But just after 4 p.m. Three white vans were driven end to end to block the highway then several of their tires were removed, and the protesters quickly flocked to the new line, effectively barricading the main road to the monument.
Several Native American tribes, including many who now call reservations in South Dakota home, consider the Black Hills a spiritual center, and the carvings of four U.S. presidents on Mount Rushmore a desecration of it. The area was ceded to several Native American tribes in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 as part of the Great Sioux Reservation.
But white prospectors soon swarmed the area hunting for gold, and the U.S. government effectively seized the land, a move never agreed to by treaty participants, who were later forced onto even smaller and more removed reservations, pushing them out of the Black Hills.
In 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the U.S. government had illegally taken the lands under the treaty, and determined the tribes should be compensated, with interest. That money, still untouched, is over $1 billion today, rejected by Native Americans tribes who view only the return of their stolen, sacred land as a step toward justice.