Around dusk on the evening on August 29, 1970, a group of 23 Native American activists climbs to the top of Mount Rushmore. Renaming the landmark Crazy Horse Mountain, in honor of the Lakota leader who famously resisted white Americans’ incursions into the area, the protesters are there to reclaim land they believe to be rightfully theirs under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which guaranteed Indigenous people the right to all of Western South Dakota. The occupation will last for two months, beginning a new chapter in Native American activism.
Signed at Fort Laramie in the Wyoming Territory, the 1868 treaty was meant to end hostilities between the United States and the Lakota people, Yanktonai Dakota and Arapaho Nation. Although it was designed to assimilate Native Americans into white American culture—U.S. courts, not tribal ones, were given jurisdiction over the reservation, and the treaty attempted to incentivize Native Americans to give up their traditional way of life in favor of farming—the Treaty of Fort Laramie allocated the Black Hills and adjacent lands west of the Missouri River, roughly half of what is now South Dakota, to Indigenous peoples. In a sadly predictable turn of events, the United States broke the treaty within a decade. After George Armstrong Custer’s expedition found gold in the Black Hills region in 1874, white prospectors and settlers rushed into the region, leading to the Great Sioux War of 1876 and American occupation of most of the land promised to the Lakota.
Nearly a century later, the political and social fervor of the 1960s led to the birth of United Native Americans, an activist group founded in San Francisco in 1968 with the mission of fighting for the rights and welfare of Indigenous peoples. It was members of this group that climbed 3,000 feet to the top of Mount Rushmore on August 29, 1970. The site, a memorial to four American presidents that symbolized the advance of white “civilization” into lands considered sacred by the Natives who had lived there before, was an obvious target for the activists. Lehman Brightman, a UNA member and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, chartered a bus for him and his students after hearing of the protest and became a spokesperson for the protesters there. “The federal government said this land would belong to us as long as the grass grows and the water flows and the sun shines,” he told one reporter. “Then they turned around and took this land from us.”
With supporters running supplies up the mountain, protesters continued the occupation until winter weather forced them to withdraw in November. Throughout that time, the monument remained open to tourists, although the occupiers draped a flag reading “Sioux Indian Power” from the mountaintop and greeted visitors with protest chants. Native Americans from around the country also visited during this period, which Brightman said he hoped would be a “spark” for further native activism. Indeed, protesters took to the mountain again the following June in a brief action that led to 12 arrests. The activism of the 1970s received new attention in the 2010s, when protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline took place at the Standing Rock Reservation, a remnant of the original Great Sioux Reservation established in 1868.