The USA was built on stolen labour and stolen land

Sam Wood
stephen-walker-sw55bsi5Y98-unsplash by Stephen Walker

Expert Comment

In response to the planned trip by President Trump to Mount Rushmore (3 July), Professor David Stirrup of Kent’s School of English reminds us of the symbolism of this sacred Sioux land. He said:

‘Not so long ago, Donald Trump was claiming credit for making “Juneteenth”, the date now synonymous with the end of US slavery, famous.

‘His proposed trip to Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe to launch this year’s Independence Day celebrations was already known by that point, but immediate criticism of the plan was somewhat masked by the furore around the Tulsa rally. Now that that metaphorical smoke has cleared, the literal smoke of a planned firework display is once again drawing ire.

‘Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe—The Six Grandfathers—is the Lakota name for Mount Rushmore, named after the New York lawyer Charles Rushmore. It stands at the heart of Páha Sapá, or the Black Hills, sacred land to the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ—the Great Sioux Nation.

‘Those lands had been opened up to miners and settlers in the 1870s in direct contravention of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie after the discovery of gold. The very men sent to protect the Sioux’s treaty rights—George Custer’s 7thCavalry—would turn to protecting the miners.

‘Two generations later, Lakota activists joined environmentalists opposing the work of Gutzon Borglum, commissioned to carve the giant heads and torsos of four US presidents into the heart of the sacred site.

‘In a 1940 speech at the foot of Mount Rushmore, Borglum conceded: “We are standing on territory once belonging to the Sioux Indians… We are standing on their very land, for which we never paid a cent – just stole it from them and lied about it. Well, these are the things we probably will do something about some day”.

‘A landmark court case in 1979/80, finally agreed that the Black Hills were stolen along with over 7 million acres of land promised to the Sioux in the Fort Laramie treaty. Refusing the court awarded payout—viewed as a coercive, retrospective sale—they continue to fight for the land’s return.

‘As BLM continues, and statues of confederates, conquistadores, and colonists of all stripes continue to be scrutinised, that most momentous monument to settler colonialism is set to be the stage for Trump’s latest tone deaf celebration of America’s greatness.

‘Featuring two slaveholder presidents, a third with imperialist inclinations, and a fourth whose emancipation proclamation was delivered in the same year he signed off on the biggest mass-execution in American history—38 Dakota Sioux men— it is a symbolic site indeed.’

David Stirrup is Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Kent’s School of English, specializing in post-Imperial Britain’s responsibilities to peoples it both displaced and made treaties with during the colonial era.

In 2019 he launched a new Centre for Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies at the University of Kent, drawing on a broad network of institutions in the UK, US, and Canada. This is the first Centre of its kind in the UK.