Despite a decade of being banned amid concerns of wildfires and groundwater pollution, protests by Native Americans, and recommendations from public health officials to avoid public gatherings, fireworks, and a festival celebration will take place once again at Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of western South Dakota on Friday, in celebration of the upcoming July 4th holiday.
What We Know:
- President Trump has pushed for the revival of the fireworks display above the 60-foot-tall monuments of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt carved across the granite face of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The event was first announced in May of 2019, but amid the current coronavirus pandemic, it was expected by many to be canceled.
- President Trump will attend the fireworks show and accompanying festival and is expected to deliver remarks at the event. About 7,500 other spectators will also be there as the winners of an online ticket lottery sponsored by South Dakota’s state tourism department. However, masks will not be required, although available at the event, and social distancing guidelines will not be followed.
- South Dakota Republican Governor Kristi Noem told Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Monday, “We will have a large event July 3rd; we told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home. But [for] those who want to come and join us, we’ll be giving out free face masks if they choose to wear one, but we won’t be social distancing.”
- Noem has been reluctant to issue lockdowns and other restrictive measures in response to the pandemic, telling Ingraham, “In South Dakota, we’ve told people to focus on personal responsibility. Every one of them has the opportunity to make a decision that they’re comfortable with, so we will be having celebrations of American independence.” Noem said she wants those coming to the event to “be ready to celebrate, to enjoy the freedoms and the liberties that we have in this county.”
- Ingraham praised her decision. “Yeah, the media is just freaking out about the COVID problem,” Ingraham said of the news coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak that has killed more than 127,000 people in the U.S. and is infecting an increasing number of people in many states.
- Health experts fear the celebration, which thousands of people are expected to attend from across the country, accompanied by a lack of mitigation efforts, could lead to a spike in infections in the communities near the event and where the attendees live.
- The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has four levels of coronavirus risks for events. The Mount Rushmore fireworks fall into the highest risk category: a large in-person gathering where it’ll be hard for attendees to remain 6 feet apart and attendees have traveled from outside the local area.
- Noem has also asked any attendees who aren’t feeling well before the event to stay home. However, health experts have noted that a large percentage of infections are likely spread by people who are asymptomatic and not showing severe symptoms.
- The fireworks display at Mount Rushmore to celebrate Independence Day had not occurred at the site since 2009 when the National Park Service ended it because of fire danger after a pine beetle infestation. But NPS determined that launching fireworks at Mount Rushmore this year would pose only a slight fire risk. Some fire experts disagree and think the fireworks show is “ill-advised.” In a 2017 document made public by The Washington Post, the NPS noted that a minimum of 27 wildfires had been started around Mount Rushmore during annual fireworks displays between 1998 and 2009, and warned that “July fire danger risk can be high to very high” in the Black Hills area.
- In January, Trump recounted a conversation he said he had with Noem about reversing the decision by the National Park Service to discontinue the annual tradition because of environmental concerns, saying, “I said, ‘You mean you can’t have fireworks because of the environment?’ ‘Yeah, environmental reasons.’ I said, ‘What can burn? It’s stone.’ You know, it’s stone. It’s granite,” Trump recalled. “So I called up our people. And within about 15 minutes, we got it approved.”
- “The president likes to say, ‘well, what can burn, it’s rock, right?’ “Bill Gabbert, who is now managing editor of the online publication Wildfire Today, told NPR. “Yeah, the carving itself is rock, and right below the carving is rock that was carved off in order to make the sculpture,” Gabbert adds. “But beyond that, there’s a Ponderosa pine forest. The Black Hills generally is a tinder box this time of year, and right now, they’re in a drought.”
- Mount Rushmore has faced additional condemnation in recent days as two South Dakota tribal leaders have called for the removal of Mount Rushmore. The site has a problematic history with local Native American groups.
- The federal government initially granted the Sioux ownership of the Black Hills, where the monument is carved in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Still, the U.S. government reclaimed them in 1876 as part of a series of post-Civil War campaigns against Native Americans after gold was discovered in the Black Hills. The U.S. Court of Claims awarded the tribes $17.1 million for the territory in 1979, but the Sioux Nation declined the money because it would legally end their demand for the Black Hills to be returned to them.
- The presidents carved into the stone themselves also face controversy. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, Abraham Lincoln approved the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota after a conflict with white settlers, and Theodore Roosevelt is reported to have said: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are.” The monument was also carved by artist Gutzon Borglum, a known member of the Ku Klux Klan.
- “Nothing stands as a greater reminder to the Great Sioux Nation of a country that cannot keep a promise or treaty than the faces carved into our sacred land on what the United States calls Mount Rushmore,” Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier said in a statement. “[We] see the faces of the men who lied, cheated, and murdered innocent people whose only crime was living on the land they wanted to steal.”
- Noem has not responded directly to the tribal leaders who call for the return of their land and the removal of the monument but has said “not on my watch” those who questioned if removal of Mount Rushmore is possible or probable.
Not on my watch. https://t.co/U6gGap5Ib6
— Governor Kristi Noem (@govkristinoem) June 23, 2020
The celebration is set to take place on Friday, July 3rd. South Dakota currently ranks 11th among the 34 states considered by the Harvard Global Health Institute to be prone to “potential community spread,” with an average over the past weeks of 6.2 new cases daily of COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants.