RAPID CITY – Grassroots Native treaty rights events here during the national Independence Day holiday this 4th of July featured a peaceful but spectacular civil disobedience action: Four indigenous technical climbers scaled downtown’s landmark private grain elevator to drop a gigantic, inverted U.S. flag from the top.
“An upside-down flag represents being in distress and is a prominent symbol across Indian Country,” NDN Collective organizers said in a media release. “That flag belongs to us. So-called Independence Day is the day that U.S. colonizers officially claimed stolen Indigenous lands as their own — the day they celebrated and continue to celebrate an outright lie that America is or has ever been a place of freedom and justice for all,” they said.
A supportive crowd watched climbers unfurl the flag, emblazoned with the slogan “LANDBACK.” NDN Collective generated the slogan for the 2020 Independence Day observance, when 21 demonstrators peacefully submitted to arrest in a civil disobedience action for the same treaty rights cause.
The flag bore a patch of “1,505” for the mounting number of unmarked graves detected recently during Indian boarding school investigations. “Colonial violence is why we are currently unearthing hundreds and thousands of our children at boarding schools both in the so-called United States and in so-called Canada,” NDN Collective commented. “There is no repair or justice until Indigenous peoples reclaim our land.”
As the climbers descended from the 100-foot tower using its built-in exterior ladder, Rapid City police officers arrested them one-by-one for trespass. The officers searched them, zip-tied their hands, put them in the windowless rear compartment of an unmarked white paddy wagon, and hauled them off to the Pennington County Jail.
Climber Krystal Two Bulls called on “the Indigenous peoples of the world who have been forcefully removed from their lands — at the hands of militarism, imperialism, capitalism and corporativism — to stand and join the struggle to get our LAND BACK!”
Two Bulls, who described herself as “a caretaker and protector of the Black Hills,” is Northern Cheyenne and Oglala Lakota. She is NDN Collective’s Landback Campaign Director. Landback is a movement to reclaim Native rights, such as those guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution by the abrogated 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty that protected the Black Hills as indigenous jurisdiction.
The organization said the event aimed to “refute the dominant narrative” about the flag’s symbolism. “This action marks a notch in the paradigm shift, one that has a long lineage,” said climber Nadya Tannous, An NDN Collective Landback campaign organizer.
The climbers switched on lighted headlamps to make their way to the ground where officers illuminated the nighttime scene with floodlights. Arrested with Two Bulls and Tannous were climbers Tytianna Harris and Martin Aranaydo. Supporters greeted them as they were released after booking the same evening.
The Pennington County States Attorney’s Office is prosecuting their cases, according to the Rapid City Police Department. Assisting police with traffic control and crowd management on the scene at 426 Omaha St. were South Dakota State Troopers, Pennington County Sheriff’s deputies, and the Rapid City Fire Department.
“We’re incredibly thankful for all of the public safety personnel, many of which were forced to work on their day off, who helped ensure this event was carried out in the safest manner possible,” Chief of Police Don Hedrick said in an official report.
The demonstrators lacked permission for the action at the silo on the corner of Fifth Street, according to his department. The civil disobedience took place in the framework of NDN Collective’s “4th of You Lie March, Rally & Feed.”
Joining the organization in berating — instead of celebrating — the occasion were members of its action network, as well as AIM, Camp Mni Luzahan Creek Patrol, and Tokala Okolakiciye.
Local law enforcement was on board for the first part of the event, which opened with a gathering at Halley Park and featured a scheduled walk to the Pennington County Jail “to call for justice for our incarcerated relatives and for all Indigenous people, past and present, who have been targeted and over-criminalized by colonial government and law enforcement systems on our own lands.”
Drummers and singers accompanied the evening march. Meanwhile, the civil disobedience at one of the tallest structures in town came as a surprise to many, including Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom. “It was clear halfway through the course of the event that organizers intended to deceive us about the plan for and extent of the demonstration,” he lamented.
Another national grassroots group, IllumiNative, joined in the July 4 effort to edit the historical narrative, saying that the conventional observance of Independence Day in the United States “perpetuates the myths of American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, and white supremacy.”
IllumiNative asked the public to seize this Independence Day as an opportunity to learn about five Indigenous stands, including the Rapid City event, that counter the “myths used to justify land theft, genocide, and violent action against Native peoples.”
The discourse, echoed in numerous simultaneous events across Turtle Island, eclipsed the message that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem had hoped to perpetuate with a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. She wanted it to be like the one she achieved on this occasion last year to bolster former President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign whistle-stop here, which cost taxpayers some $800,000, according to court findings.
In the end, she lost both court and administrative battles for the 2021 fireworks at the mountain carving of four early U.S. presidents that inspired the non-profit destination marketing organization Visit Rapid City to brand the locale as The City of Presidents.
Yet she faced the music with resolve in a pre-holiday missive July 2, addressing the principles of the Declaration of Independence. “America is the greatest nation on earth because our founding fathers took the time to articulate them, fight for them, and secure them for all of us,” she wrote.
A different version of this story appears in Native Sun News Today.