Sacred Black Hills: An Origin Story that Breaks with Colonialism

UPDATE July 6: At least 15 people were arrested Friday, July 3, as activists blocked a highway to protest Trump’s speech at Mt. Rushmore, to highlight the desecration of sacred lands and as a process of decolonization. For more information, please visit NDN’s website.

The Mount Rushmore monument where the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln are carved, has become a source of great political turmoil as indigenous people fight their way out of invisibility in a country born from invasion, conquest, expansionism, colonialism, and the exploitation of Mother Earth. Back then they called it “progress,” today many are beginning to question its symbolism and how it equates with a dark history of the United States of America.

“Every president whose likeness is carved into the sacred Black Hills at Mount Rushmore have legacies of white supremacy, anti-Indian policies, and colonization,” said Sarah Sunshine Manning of the NDN Collective. “When it comes to U.S. Presidents, what many Americans don’t realize is that the vast majority of them had policies devoted either to the complete annihilation or subjugation of Indigenous people.”

Mount Rushmore was built on stolen land, the Black Hills, a place of great spiritual significance and historical sorrow for indigenous people. The US Calvary took it by force in 1876, breaking the the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie; in 1882 the US government would ban all forms of Indian religion, a decree that lasted until 1978 when Congress passed the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act; in 1890 the Wounded Knee Massacre marked an end to armed resistance, which happens to be—not coincidentally—a mere 75 miles away from Mount Rushmore, built in 1924. A century earlier, in 1819, the US government had already made clear its stance in regards to indigenous people with the Civilization Fund Act, which essentially legalized policies of forced assimilation, removal, and boarding schools. Just 15 years earlier Jefferson would ask Lewis and Clark to survey all indigenous tribes towards a westward expansion, under the legal precept of Manifest Destiny.

The Black Hills are sacred for many Native tribes—the Arapahos, Arikaras, Crows, Hidatsas, Kiowas, Mandans, Poncas, Plains Apaches, Cheyennes, and Lakota.

Charlotte Black Elk, the great granddaughter of Black Elk, talked to C-SPAN in 2001 about the history of Black Hills but also the incredible resistance and resilience of her people who have fought to keep their ways and spiritual practices, despite the state repression. Charlotte herself is the living embodiment of that resistance as a caretaker of Oglala Lakota wisdom and history. Black Elk saw the colonizing expansion of the US, her grandfather was sent to Carlisle, her father was told that only intelligent people spoke English, but his children, including Charlotte, learned Lakota as their first language.

“There’s a quote that is attributed to Black Elk when he saw Wounded Knee that…something died in the muddy bloody snow, but that if a root of the sacred tree still lives, then nourish it and let it bloom and grow…to have this flowering tree fill with singing birds.”

That song represents the origin story that when the universe was created, it was given a song, and every thread of that universe, is part of that song. “But the entire song is in the Black Hills, and when we perform all ceremonies, we activate that song of strength.”

In 1987, Charlotte also talked to the Rolling Stone about the Lakota’s origin story, beautifully explained as,

“At the time of first motion…before anything has meaning, Inyan is. The spirit of Inyan is beyond understanding…Inyan is soft and supple. And the power of Inyan flows from his blood…Then Inyan desires there to be another, but there could be no other unless Inyan created it of himself, so all things are forever a part of Inyan. He takes of himself and shapes a disk. This he wraps over and around himself.


He names this new being Maka, the earth. Then he desires that Maka be great, so he opens his veins. He allows his blood to run freely. All of Maka is great, but her heart is more great and special, and it stands first of all the places of Maka. Inyan’s blood becomes water, the blue of the blood becomes sky, containing the power. Each new thing is issued part of Inyan’s power and spirit and meaning.


Maka desires a covering. The covering of Maka will be created as a part of her, forever attached to her, and she will nourish it from herself. Maka takes of herself and creates her covering. These she calls her children. People of the Four Relations are created: the Growing and Moving Things, the Winged, the Four-Legged, the Two-Legged. Of the Two-Legged are Bear and Humans. Humans are created from materials of the earth. Woman is shaped first, then Man. . . . Inyan gives so much of himself that he loses suppleness. He becomes hard and brittle, the oldest living thing, the stone.”

She compares that origin story to Genesis in the Bible, which gives forth the prevailing idea that Earth is place of punishment for humankind, banished from heaven. “It’s a place of exile and man is told to dominate the earth, so those are two very different viewpoints of earth: as enemy and a place of exile, and earth as Mother where all things are related.”

Protest Mt. Rushmore
Protest at Mount Rushmore, July 3, 2020, #LandBack. Photo: NDN Collective Facebook page

The stolen land of the Black Hills was the culmination of a civilizatory process that was both military and institutionalized ethnocide of this continent’s original peoples. Yet today, Black Elk would look in admiration at the new generation of young people who are fighting today for their rights, their language and the teachings of their ancestors as they rise to reclaim what’s theirs and protect the land, and with Maka become the autonomous expressions of the Universal song.