The sun is setting along the indigenous Black Hills, commonly known as Mount Rushmore.

Photograph by Evan Benally Atwood

Reclaiming the Six Grandfathers

Words by Ruth h. Burns

LANDBACK is about healing, and the return of the Black Hills to the Oceti Sakowin is about returning to ourselves, writes Ruth Burns. The Black Hills are Not For Sale!

Earlier this month, on July 4th, much-loved ice cream giant Ben and Jerry’s stirred the proverbial pot and sparked outrage when they dared to tweet that, “The United States was founded on Stolen Land.” But they didn’t stop there. They followed up their controversial, albeit 100% factual statement, with a call to action: “Let’s Commit to Returning It.” 


That’s right, Ben and Jerry’s threw down for the Land Back Movement. 


“The Indigenous Land Back Movement is all about restoring the rights and freedoms of Indigenous people. It’s about dismantling white supremacy and systems of oppression and ensuring that Indigenous people can again govern the land their communities called home for thousands of years.” 

— Ben and Jerry’s, July 2023


LANDBACK has been touted as a means of not only correcting historic evils committed against Indigenous peoples by rigid and ruthless capitalistic-colonial power structures, but also as a method of saving precious endangered ecosystems the world over from widespread destruction caused by climate change and extractive industry. After all, Indigenous peoples have proven to be adept at land management. And why wouldn’t they be? They’ve lived on their ancestral lands for millennia, successfully thriving and existing in balance with their surroundings, alongside the other creatures who inhabit it.


In another tweet, Ben and Jerry’s proposed that the public cement its support of LANDBACK by demanding the return of Mount Rushmore to the Lakota Nation. It was a stroke of genius really, as Mount Rushmore, what some have called a shrine to white supremacy, perfectly encapsulates the LANDBACK struggle, particularly within the context of Independence Day.


Let me explain. Mount Rushmore, the iconic American monument celebrating four of the most famous U.S. presidents, otherwise known as “the founding fathers,” is actually Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe, The Six Grandfathers. It is an ancient Lakota sacred site. 


Gutzon Borglum, the man who carved Mount Rushmore, created it to commemorate the conquest of Indigenous lands by colonizers. He said his goal was to convey “the founding, expansion and preservation” of the colonial United States. There’s no doubt that the four Presidents he chose to memorialize are certainly the epitome of colonial dominionism—or the theocratic belief of European Christians that they have a divine right to seize control over whatever they want, especially as it pertains to anything of value in the possession or under the protection of Indigenous heathens.  

The Six Grandfathers sits in the Black Hills, the legendary birthplace of the Lakota people, that rightfully belongs to the Lakota Nation to this day.

George Washington, a slave owner, called for the extermination of Native Nations. Thomas Jefferson regularly impregnated an underage slave girl he kept in a small windowless room next to his. Abraham Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors without due process, legal representation, or even translators. It’s still the largest mass execution in U.S. history. And while I appreciate that Theodore Roosevelt established National Parks, he once said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”


By the way, Borglum was a white supremacist and an open member of the Ku Klux Klan.


Moreover, it’s not just that Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe was once a Lakota sacred site. The Six Grandfathers sits in the Black Hills, The Heart of Everything That Is, the legendary birthplace of the Lakota people, that rightfully belongs to the Lakota Nation to this day. They were promised to us in the Fort Laramie Treaty, a legally binding agreement between the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) and the federal government, which set aside 35 million acres of our ancestral territory as the permanent homelands of the Lakota people.


The Fort Laramie Treaty came about because of Red Cloud’s War. Basically, the Lakota Nation was routinely defeating the U.S. army on American soil. The federal government had no choice but to offer an instrument of peace to the Lakota, in exchange for a promise to leave Lakota territory alone.


In 1980, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills had indeed been stolen from the Lakota Nation after gold was discovered there in the late 1800s. They deemed it a taking, concluding that “a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S. 371, 388 (1980). Some would beg to differ. That said, the United States Supreme Court awarded the Lakota Nation $105 million dollars. Today, that award, with interest, amounts to around $2 billion U.S. dollars. 


The Lakota will not accept the money because THE BLACK HILLS ARE NOT FOR SALE. THEY NEVER WERE. We want the LAND BACK. 


In a knee-jerk reaction to Ben and Jerry’s LANDBACK awareness campaign, a House subcommittee entertained a bill that would block any future efforts to remove or rename Mount Rushmore. The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hosted a hearing on the Mount Rushmore Protection Act (Bill H.R. 3860). The bill is the third attempt to limit the use of federal funds in the pursuit of altering, changing, destroying or removing the Mount Rushmore monument. Native leaders, as well as the National Park Service (NPS), are rebuking the bill, calling it unnecessary.  


Proponents of the Mount Rushmore Protection Act cite the recent renaming of Harney Peak in South Dakota, the tallest peak in the Black Hills, to Black Elk Peak, as the reason why the bill should be passed.  What they fail to mention is that Harney Peak was named after an army officer who massacred Native people, and that it was the government itself who made the choice to change the name. 


Mount Rushmore lies within unceded Lakota land. Even though Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe (The Six Grandfathers) was defaced by Gutzon Borglum, it still belongs to the Lakota Nation. As such, the Lakota should decide the fate of Mount Rushmore. 


Curiously, the medicine man and heyoka Black Elk, for whom Black Elk Peak is so named, spoke of a vision he had of the Six Grandfathers, who sit upon the Holy Mountain. In his vision, he saw humanity going extinct. At its culmination, he rode through black death to bring the people a flowering stick, which he called the Tree of Life. Once planted, this Tree of Life provided shelter for all people, regardless of color or creed. In their unity, the wisdom of the daybreak star shined upon them and they knew peace.


Settlers do not understand that Indigenous peoples, practicing their ancestral belief systems, do not operate from a place of want. They do not seek to subjugate them or to take revenge, even though we continue to face sweeping injustice. LANDBACK is about healing, and the return of the Black Hills to the Oceti Sakowin is about returning to ourselves. Our very identity is tied to the sacred Black Hills. Our fates are connected.


As Ben and Jerry’s exclaim, “Return Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills to the Lakota.” The descendants of those who broke the treaties have the opportunity to right this grievous wrong and restore balance of the Universe. Return control of The Six Grandfathers to the Lakota Nation.


If you would like to learn more about the historic fight for the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, as well as the Land Back Movement, seek out Lakota Nation Vs. United States, a powerful in-depth documentary that highlights little known Indigenous narratives in American history. It begins with the theft of Native lands and weaves through harrowing accounts of the sacrifices Lakota have made because we refuse to surrender, up to the present day.


The Black Hills are Not For Sale!

Keep Reading


60 Seconds on Earth,Anthropocene,Art & Culture,Climate Migration,Black Liberation,Changemakers,Democracy,Environmental Justice,Photography,Earth Sounds,Deep Ecology,Indigeneity,Queer Ecology,Ethical Fashion,Ocean Life,Climate Solutions,The Frontline,The Overview,Biodiversity,Common Origins,Fabricating Change,Future of Food,Identity & Community,Movement Building,Science & Nature,Well Being,