David Lias

Tone deaf.

Those are the words that come to mind when I think of Gov. Kristi Noem and her response to Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner.

As President Trump was preparing to visit Mount Rushmore today, Bear Runner prepared a memo of disapproval. He noted, in an Argus Leader report, that the president failed to consult with tribal leaders about the visit to the Black Hills, which the Sioux consider part of their Great Sioux Reservation, land that was never ceded to the United States. Bear Runner also thinks Mount Rushmore should come down.

After those words became public on June 25, Gov. Noem reacted with some chest thumping and shifted her public relations machine in Pierre into high gear.

“Not On My Watch” reads the headline of the press release issued by Noem a day later, as if a group of poverty-ridden people in South Dakota could somehow truly threaten a mountain.

Oglala Lakota County, contained entirely within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation, has the lowest per capita income ($8,768) in the country, and ranks as the “poorest” county in the nation. Oglala Lakota County ranked last in the state of South Dakota for quality of life and health behaviors.

This data comes from a web page called “Re-Member,” which lists all sorts of statistics about the reservation – none of them very good. For example, the officially reported poverty rate for American Indians living on Pine Ridge is 53.75 percent. The United States average is 15.6 percent.

Re-Member is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization which works with the Oglala Lakota Nation on Pine Ridge Reservation to improve the quality of reservation life through relationships, shared resources and volunteer services.

“I don’t believe it (Mount Rushmore) should be blown up, because it would cause more damage to the land,” Bear Runner said, noting that Indian artifacts could be damaged. He thinks the four faces should be removed, however.

Bear Runner’s reaction to the Trump/Noem celebration at Mount Rushmore is no surprise, really, and it’s clear that the governor chose to make political hay out it – likely in an attempt to prop up our president who nationally is growing more and more unpopular.

South Dakota’s Native American people have consistently noted that the mountain is part of the Black Hills and the Black Hills is sacred land. Many tribes, in fact, see Mount Rushmore as a symbol and reminder of the country’s betrayal of Native Americans.

It’s ironic that Gov. Noem defends her “not on my watch” stance by stating that “vandals have gone so far as to attack statues of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, the very leaders who brought the Union through the Civil War and ushered in the end of slavery in our country.”

Such vandalism, if it occurred, is tiny in scale to the damage to holy ground that Mount Rushmore represents to the Midwest’s Native American population. It’s time for Gov. Noem to recognize that and realize that the controversy caused by the president’s visit to the monument to see a fireworks show provides an opportunity for dialogue.

This is the perfect time for the governor to acknowledge that Mount Rushmore will never come down – her “watch” really isn’t needed – and it will forever remind our fellow Native American citizens of the bad faith treatment their ancestors received as they were driven by our ancestors to reservations throughout the Midwest.

O.J. Semans, an executive director of Four Directions, a Native American voting advocacy group, said that while a lot of Sioux Indians want Mount Rushmore removed, it could also serve a purpose to teach the thousands of visitors their story with exhibits and films.

“Doing that, I think, would get more people to understand the actual hurt that Natives are going through every time they see those images,” he told the Argus Leader. “The atrocities aren’t going away.”

That’s particularly true of Lincoln, said Semans, who is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. While Lincoln is revered for ending slavery, he is viewed among the Sioux as a president who oversaw the largest mass execution in American history when 38 Sioux were hung in Minnesota during the Dakota War of 1862. Mount Rushmore, Semans said, should be used to tell that story.

“I’m not saying that those who want to see it removed are wrong,” Semans said. “I can understand how they can come to that conclusion. But I’m trying to be a realist.

“This is really a learning moment for the people who are in charge of Mount Rushmore to right a wrong,” he added. “Removing a statue doesn’t right a wrong.”

It’s time for Gov. Noem to be a realist, too. Mount Rushmore isn’t going anywhere. It will remain a major tourist attraction in our state, annually attracting over two million tourists and their dollars -- about $185 million each year.

But it shouldn’t be used as campaign prop (God willing, the president won’t say anything too embarrassing during his visit here).

The governor should devote the same amount of effort and resources to bring the president here and shoot off some fireworks to also plan a meeting with tribal leaders.

There’s a perfect place to hold such a meeting – the Crazy Horse Memorial currently being constructed in the Black Hills. I’m merely throwing that out as a suggestion; I recognize that the governor won’t be able to elbow her way in to such a place – the revered mountain is privately owned. And while journalist Tim Giago has noted that not all Lakota are crazy about the memorial, it would be a better place for such a meeting than Mount Rushmore. It would be a place where hopefully Noem and her team and tribal leaders could not only agree to disagree but also learn and compromise.

A host of things could be talked about. For example, in late May, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and Four Directions, a non-profit group that works to encourage civic participation in Indian Country, notified South Dakota officials of serious and ongoing violations of federal requirements for providing voter registration opportunities through public assistance agencies and departments of motor vehicles.

The notice letter, directed to the Secretary of State as the state’s chief elections official, asks state officials to respond within 20 days to avoid the need for federal court litigation. In this matter, the tribes are represented by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and Four Directions is represented by Demos.

I’ve been unable to find news stories stating that the state has responded. It would seem, however, that working out this problem, should the tribes’ claims be accurate, would be important as the November election approaches.

There are so many other issues that could be discussed – and several of them have received attention from the governor in both her role as the state’s chief executive and earlier as our U.S. representative – human trafficking, meth and other drug use on reservations, suicide, poverty, housing, economic development. The list goes on.

We’re about to celebrate freedom and independence. It is our responsibility to make sure all South Dakotans have the opportunity to share in that with some degree of equality. Please meet with our Native American sisters and brothers, Gov. Noem, and work with them so they may achieve constructive, life-changing goals.


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