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Noem's Mount Rushmore lawsuit sparks legal fight with tribe

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s lawsuit against the federal government over a July Fourth fireworks display she wants to put on at Mount Rushmore has reignited legal tensions between her and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

The tribe last week sought to join the lawsuit in opposition to Noem, who is asking a federal judge to order the National Park Service to allow the fireworks display. The Republican governor sued the Department of Interior last month after the Park Service denied the state’s application for the event, citing safety concerns and objections from local Native American tribes.

The tribal lawsuit touches on a century-old dispute over ownership and control of the Black Hills, which include Mount Rushmore. The Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the land was taken from tribes in violation of treaty agreements and offered them a monetary payment.

In the lawsuit over fireworks at Mount Rushmore, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Steve Vance, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, argue that they should be allowed to take part in the lawsuit because the land on which Mount Rushmore sits is “our most sacred site — the Heart of Everything That Is.”

“The fact that this event could be forced upon us in our sacred lands despite our clear opposition to the event traumatizes us as a people and inflicts grief upon us. To us, allowing this event to occur again is a colonial attack on one of our most sacred places,” the tribe and Vance argue in court documents.

Noem, in a document filed Sunday, opposed the tribe’s request to join the lawsuit, arguing that the tribe doesn’t have standing in what is a “state-federal dispute.” Her lawyers argue that the fireworks display wouldn’t hinder the tribe’s religious or free speech rights.

When she filed the lawsuit, Noem included patriotic arguments on why the fireworks should be allowed and argued that the permit’s denial was an “arbitrary and capricious” decision based on politics.

Chief Judge Roberto Lange of the federal district court of South Dakota hasn’t ruled on whether the tribe can join the suit. He indicated that he’ll decide by June 2 whether to issue a preliminary injunction to force the Park Service to allow the fireworks this summer. The governor’s daughter, who worked as a federal liaison for her mother for last July’s event, said in a court filing that the governor’s office had invited tribal leaders to provide their perspective on it.

Noem wrote to President Joe Biden last month that the tribes were consulted before the event last year. But in a statement Tuesday, the tribe denied that was the case.

“The office of the Chairman has no record of any consultations with the State of South Dakota or the federal government regarding fireworks in the sacred Black Hills,” the tribe said.

Noem and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe have had a tense relationship that deteriorated last year when she threatened to sue it over coronavirus checkpoints the tribe set up to keep unnecessary visitors off its reservation during the pandemic. Noem backed away from her threat, but the tribe sued then-President Donald Trump’s administration for attempting to coerce it into removing its checkpoints. That case hasn’t been settled and it isn’t clear if the tribe will persist with it under Biden’s administration.

South Dakota also sued the tribe and its chairman, Harold Frazier, for changing speed limit signs on a state highway that runs through the reservation.

Noem has also clashed with other tribes in the state. But on Monday, she announced she would host an event called the Governor’s Round Dance in Pierre this week. Out of nine tribes in the state, the elected leaders of two tribes — the Yankton Sioux Tribe and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe — said they would attend, according to Noem’s office.

Stephen Groves, The Associated Press