US President Donald Trump will be an unwanted guest of the Sioux People as he begins his July Fourth celebration weekend with a massive event on Friday where masks and social distancing are not required as coronavirus cases spike across the country.
Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner wrote a letter informing Trump he was not welcome ahead of the event, “due to lack of consultation” with Lakota leaders, Bear Runner said in an interview with MSNBC.
“It’s very hard for me to remain diplomatic,” Bear Runner said, considering the lack of communication and the historical importance of the mountain.
Mount Rushmore is carved into a sacred site that represents the ancestors of the Oglala and other Indigenous groups, Bear Runner explained.
The Black Hills where the monument was built also belongs to the Lakota under a treaty with the United States that tribal leaders say has been violated by the US for more than 100 years.
The monument to former US Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – revered as the emancipator of Black slaves but remembered by Indigenous people for his aggressive actions against Native Americans – was designed by a white nationalist and Ku Klux Klan member, reports suggests.
Protests are expected in Keystone, the small town near the monument, amid a nationwide reckoning with racial justice and monuments to racism after the death of George Floyd.
Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesman for Bear Runner, said protesters would like to make their voices heard at the memorial itself, but it is not clear they will be able to get close.
Security is expected to be tight, with the road leading up to Mount Rushmore shut down. The governor’s spokesperson, Maggie Seidel, would not say whether the South Dakota National Guard was being deployed, but said organisers are making sure it is a safe event.
Trump is expected to speak at the event, which has issued 7,500 tickets to watch fireworks that he says will be a “display like few people have seen”.
The president will likely enjoy a show of support, with the state Republican Party selling T-shirts that feature Trump on the memorial alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
But concern about the coronavirus risk and wildfire danger from the fireworks, along with protests from Native American groups, will also greet the president.
Republican Governor Kristi Noem, a Trump ally, has said social distancing will not be required during the event and masks will be optional. Event organisers will provide masks to anyone who wants them and plan to screen attendees for symptoms of COVID-19, the highly-infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The Republican mayor of Rapid City, the largest city near the monument, said he is watching for a spike in cases after the event, the Rapid City Journal reported.
“We’re going to have thousands of people, shoulder to shoulder at these events – someone in line to see a president and being able to see fireworks at Mount Rushmore – they are probably not likely to disqualify themself because they developed a cough the day of or the day before,” Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender said.
Leaders of several Native American tribes in the region also raised concerns that the event could lead to coronavirus outbreaks among their members, who they say are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of an underfunded healthcare system and chronic health conditions.
“The president is putting our tribal members at risk to stage a photo op at one of our most sacred sites,” said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
“Our experts … are telling us that these are necessary steps to take in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It’s not just a threat to my people, but a threat to the land … and human life,” Bear Runner said in the MSNBC interview.
Several people who once oversaw fire danger at the national memorial have said setting off fireworks over the forest is a bad idea that could lead to a large wildfire. Fireworks were called off after 2009 because a mountain pine beetle infestation increased the fire risks.
Noem pushed to get the fireworks resumed soon after she was elected, and enlisted Trump’s help. The president brushed aside fire concerns earlier this year, saying: “What can burn? It’s stone.”
The National Park Service studied the potential effect of the fireworks for this year and found they would be safe, though it noted that in a dry year, a large fire was a risk.
Organisers are monitoring the fire conditions and were to decide on Friday if the fireworks are safe.
Trump made no mention of the fire danger in fresh comments on Thursday.
“They used to do it many years ago, and for some reason they were unable or unallowed to do it,” he said. “They just weren’t allowed to do it, and I opened it up and we’re going to have a tremendous July 3 and then we’re coming back here, celebrating the Fourth of July in Washington, DC.”
Trump has presided over several large-crowd events – in Tulsa, Oklahoma and at an Arizona megachurch – even as health officials warn against large gatherings and recommend face masks and social distancing.
He plans to hold a July Fourth celebration on the National Mall despite health concerns from DC’s mayor.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump plan to host events from the White House south lawn and from the Ellipse.