KEY POINTS

  • Native American activist groups are planning protests of President Trump's planned visit to Mount Rushmore on July 3 to kick-off Independence Day weekend festivites
  • Park officials and weather experts warn the planned fireworks display could lead to wildfires in the surrounding forests thanks to seasonally dry weather
  • Health experts warned the festivities could serve as a breeding ground for coronavirus due to the expected size of the crowd and no requirements for masks or social distancing

Ahead of President Trump’s planned trip to South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore to kick off July 4 festivities, Native American activists said they plan on protesting the visit because the famous monument is a racist symbol.

“Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy, of structural racism that’s still alive and well in society today,” NDN Collective President and Oglala Lakota tribe member Nick Tilsen told the Associated Press. “It’s an injustice to actively steal Indigenous people’s land, then carve the white faces of the conquerors who committed genocide.”

Tilsen is among many Native Americans who have voiced their opposition to the monument built into South Dakota’s Black Hills near Rapid City.

The mountain where the faces of George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson were carved is considered sacred by the various Sioux tribes that once resided there, referring to it as Paha Sapa. Activist groups like NDN Collective also argue the monument represents the history of hostilities toward Indigenous peoples by the U.S. government.

Mount Rushmore was built between 1927 and 1939, with crews using drills and dynamite to carve the faces into the granite and metamorphic rock surface. The presidents featured were chosen by sculptor Gutzon Borglum to represent the birth of the U.S. (Washington), westward expansion (Jefferson), preservation and emancipation (Lincoln) and industrial innovation (Roosevelt).

Borglum was a noted member of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s when the KKK helped oversee the creation of several statues and monuments in the U.S. South based on Confederate leaders. Borglum, himself, initially oversaw the Stone Mountain project which features depictions of Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis. However, he was taken off the project and later left the KKK over alleged internal problems.

Borglum was at one time tapped to construct the Crazy Horse Memorial about 20 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore, as well.

The memorial, commissioned by then Oglala Chief Henry Standing Bear in 1943. It was planned as one of the largest memorials in the world in honor of the famed Lakota Oglala leader and warrior Crazy Horse, who led his own resistance against relocation and expansion by the U.S. govenrment in the 1860s and 1870s. However, the monument remains under construction to this day, with only the head somewhat completed.

NDN Collective is among many activist groups calling for the monument’s removal,though other groups have argued providing local Native American tribes a share of the economic benefits produced by the monument could be a good compromise.

Trump currently plans to visit Mount Rushmore on Friday, July 3, to kick-off Independence Day weekend festivities. It is set to include a fireworks display and jets flying overhead as part of Trump’s “comeback” tour, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest across the country.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem voiced her support for Trump’s planned celebration and defended the monument’s existence as a way to discuss the “virtues” the four presidents displayed brought to the U.S.

“These men have flaws, obviously every leader has flaws, but we’re missing the opportunity we have in this discussion to talk about the virtues and what they brought to this country, and the fact that this is the foundation that we’re built on and the heritage we should be carrying forward,” Noem told Fox News on Wednesday.

She also responded to a Twitter post by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro about the possible removal of the monument.

However, health experts, weather experts, and park officials also have voiced concern over the planned festivities. It will be the first year fireworks will be fired at Mount Rushmore since a ban imposed in 2010 by the National Park Service due to drought conditions in the surrounding 1,200 acres of forest.

Weather experts and park officials have repeatedly warned a fireworks display could cause fires in the surrounding areas due to the dry weather that’s common in the Black Hills around July 4. It could also strengthen a fire less than 10 miles south that already has burned 150 acres and forced local crews to call in fire crews from two other states for support.

“It's a bad idea based on the wildland fire risk, the impact to the water quality of the memorial, the fact that [it] is going to occur during a pandemic without social distancing guidelines and the emergency evacuation issues,” former Mount Rushmore National Park superintendent Cheryl Schreier told the Washington Post.

There are also concerns the event could result in further coronavirus exposure. No social distancing requirements have been put in place for the July 3 event, despite around 7,500 tickets being distributed through an online lottery. The Interior Department said it would post signs encouraging people to wear masks and socially distance, but no one besides park employees will be required to adhere to suggestion.

It comes at a time when coronavirus cases are surging across the U.S. as the number of confirmed cases neared 2.5 million and deaths neared 125,000. South Dakota has reported 6,326 confirmed cases and 81 deaths from the pandemic.

MountRushmore Mount Rushmore features images of U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Above, it can be seen Oct. 1, 2013. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images