This Land Was Their Land

There’s no better time for American citizens to give back what doesn’t belong to us. 

Excerpted from:  (Ben & Jerry’s Foundation)

As we give thanks this month, it’s easy to smooth out the shameful truth of our nation’s founding with colonial fantasies about Pilgrims and Indians, feasting in peace. Who doesn’t love a happy story? The problem with hanging onto these feel-good myths, is that it can distract from — and even excuse – the undeniable reality that the United States was founded on stolen Indigenous land. Instead of the usual Thanksgiving narrative, this November we’re honoring National American Indian Heritage Month with the story of Mount Rushmore, a conflict most Americans have likely never learned about.

Long before South Dakota had become a state, long before the faces of four American presidents were blasted into the side of Mount Rushmore, that mountain was known as Tunkasila Sakpe, aka “the Six Grandfathers,” to the Lakota Sioux — a holy mountain that rises up from the sacred Black Hills they have honored since the dawn of time. The Black Hills are known to the Lakota as “the heart of everything that is.” After decades of fighting to keep colonizers off their land, the Lakota and other tribes signed the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868, establishing a 35-million-acre “permanent home” for them that included the Black Hills.

Unfortunately for them, it turns out that US government’s idea of “permanent” at the time was more like “until gold is discovered.” We reneged on those treaties only a few years later, when prospectors and settlers flooded in and carved up the land for themselves. After much sabotage and bloodshed, The Great Sioux Nation (as the tribes in the area were collectively known) was forced to surrender its land and relocate to smaller reservations, on parcels the government deemed “useless.”

Their beloved Black Hills became a part of a state called South Dakota in 1889. Thirty-eight years later, in 1927, they watched in horror as their holy mountain was desecrated and dynamited to honor their colonizers: four white men — two of whom enslaved people, and all of whom were hostile to Indigenous people and values.

In 1970, Indigenous activists climbed Mount Rushmore and occupied it for months, demanding that land be returned to the Sioux. Ten years later, the US Supreme Court ruled that Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills had indeed been stolen, saying, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never…be found in our history.” They awarded the Sioux $105 million in damages, but the tribes refused the payment. Why? Because this sacred land is theirs — and it’s not for sale.

That money has been held in trust since 1980 and now is worth about $2 billion (with interest). The tribes still refuse it, despite living in some of the poorest communities in the US.

“We are poor because our resources were stolen from us… But our connection to the Black Hills is not a monetary one. Our main concern is that the land not be desecrated and we be allowed to resume our role as stewards of the land—that is our purpose as Lakota.”
Red Dawn Foster, Oglala Lakota, South Dakota state senator

Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude for the blessings we enjoy here in “the greatest country in the world,” but what does it mean for those whose land we stole? For those who were murdered and forced with brutal violence onto reservations, who were pushed from their holy places and denied their freedom? The faces on Mount Rushmore are the faces of men who actively worked to destroy Indigenous cultures and ways of life, to deny Indigenous people their basic rights.

How can we expect to be global leaders for democracy, when we’ve yet to reckon with the colonial skeletons in our own closet?

The Indigenous-led 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. SIGN THE PETITION: (and learn more about efforts to support indigenous sovereignty).

First Nations in Philly Today 

Although the most recent US census reports that Pennsylvania is home to more than 12,000 American Indians, our state fails to recognize any native tribes, including the Lenape Nation for whom this area is their Indigenous homeland. If Pennsylvania would grant them this, they’d be on their way to Federal recognition, which could open up funding, services, jobs, education, development, and more — it’d be a holistic community boost that’d help properly acknowledge our shared history

On November 4th, Philadelphia’s City Hall was host to the second “Save Our Ancestors, Acknowledge Our Lands” rally hosted by Indigenous Education, a educational non-profit that creates social media videos highlighting BIPOC history and advocating for better support and awareness. Their website also offers classes, books, and resource library.

November’s event focused on honoring and respecting Indigenous and Black Ancestors — and fighting for the respectful return of human remains and sacred indigenous spaces in the City.  There were speakers expressing hope, anger, pride, and joy, as well as flute playing performances and dance. This was Indigenous Education’s first form of advocacy within the community, and they made it clear that it will not be their last. Power to the First People! 🪶✊

Follow Indigenous Education on Youtube and Facebook to learn more about why Indigenous activism is important and how we can all participate for a fuller, safer world for everyone.

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