Culturally Relevant

LANDBACK Magazine and the Fight for the Black Hills

Carolina Ciucci


Carolina Ciucci is a teacher, writer and reviewer based in the south of Argentina. She hoards books like they’re going out of style. In case of emergency, you can summon her by talking about Ireland, fictional witches, and the Brontë family. Twitter: @carolinabeci

First Nations have long since demanded, and advocated for, the return of Indigenous lands stolen by colonizers. The LANDBACK movement has been advanced by generations of Indigenous people, including the team behind the NDN Collective. Since its founding in 2018, the NDN Collective has established a three-part mission, each captured under a single word: Defend, Develop, and Decolonize.

Currently, the NDN Collective has four primary campaign areas: climate justice, racial equity, education equity, and LANDBACK. The latter’s main priorities are “the closure of Mount Rushmore, return of that land and all public lands in the Black Hills, South Dakota.” As parts of this campaign, pre-sales of the first ever issue of LANDBACK Magazine were launched in October 2022.

A Little History

In 1851 and 1868, the federal government established treaties recognizing multiple tribes and identifying designated territories for them. The 1868 Fort Laramie treaty, in particular, determined that the entire Western half of South Dakota, as well as part of North Dakota and Wyoming, belonged to the Sioux. This obviously included the Black Hills . This was supposed to be in effect in perpetuity.

Alas, the early 1870s brought the discovery of gold in the mountains. Suddenly, the U.S. government decided it had been too hasty, and sent two commissions to renegotiate the treaties. The tribes declined. Cut to 1874, with Congress declaring that treaties were no longer to be used. Lakota Sioux elder Leonard Little Finger points out that this effectively nullified Article 6 of the United States Constitution. This was hardly a surprise: one year before, President Ulysses S. Grant said that Indigenous Peoples should be brought “under the benign influences of education and civilization. It is either this or war of extermination.”

Nothing says educated and civilized quite like waging war on people living their lives on their own land, right?

After the Supreme Court ruling, over a quarter million gold seekers arrived at the Black Hills. In 1876, the Sioux defeated General Custer and the 7th Cavalry in Montana, in what is called the Battle of Little Bighorn. Less than a decade later, the Sioux were forced onto reservations to become United States citizens, and North and South Dakota were incorporated into the Union. This culminated in the massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890, where almost three hundred Lakota people were murdered by the U.S. Army.

In the 1920s, the Sioux filed a complaint with the Indian Claims Commission, in which they stated that the United States had illegally taken their lands. Around 40 years later, the case entered the Supreme Court. It took another couple of decades for the latter to establish that yes, the U.S. did violate the treaty, but no, they could not give it back because something something the land was now occupied and also Mount Rushmore was in it. And they couldn’t give up such an important national monument as Mount Rushmore, now, could they?

The irony, it burns.

The U.S. government did offer compensation — in the form of the $350 million the land was worth when they seized it. Considering that, between that time and the closure of the last gold mine in 2005, approximately $9 trillion worth of gold was extracted, this was a metaphorical slap in the face. And that’s not even taking into consideration that the Black Hills are sacred land for Oceti Sakowin, or the People of the Seven Council Fires.

NDN Collective: LANDBACK Campaign

As I mentioned above, the LANDBACK Campaign is one of the four primary campaigns the NDN Collective is currently concentrating on. Although it’s part of a long history of Indigenous people claiming the return of ownership of their lands, this particular campaign was formed in 2020. It was announced in August and launched in October, motivated by the Land Defenders’ protest of Donald Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore on 4 July: they blocked the road to Mount Rushmore and stopped traffic for almost three hours. This led to the arrest of 21 protesters, including NDN Collective president and CEO Nick Tilsen.

Mount Rushmore is an international symbol of white supremacy, and as people across America rightfully pull down statues of white supremacy, we have to look long and hard at how this national monument in the Black Hills upholds and maintains white supremacy on Indigenous lands. Our LANDBACK efforts started at Mount Rushmore as we not only took a stand against white supremacy and Trump’s racist rhetoric that day, but also in demanding that Mount Rushmore be shut down as a national monument and that all public lands in the Black Hills be returned to Indigenous people.”

Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of the NDN Collective


The very first issue of the LANDBACK Magazine, titled He Sapa: The Heart of Everything that Is, was announced in October 2022. It is filled with “powerful content from movement elders, youth organizers, the frontlines of LGBTQ2S+ justice, climate justice, and joint-struggle movements against White Supremacy and colonialism.” It sold out very quickly, all thousand printed copies finding homes with alacrity.

It’s worth noting that, although the magazine is specifically about the LANDBACK Campaign, the other three major NDN Collective campaigns (climate justice, racial equity, and education equity) are also part of it. That’s because the link between all four of these issues is inseverable, as the Collective is well aware. Thus, the explicit connection they make between “[dismantling] white supremacy and systems of oppression” and “putting Indigenous Lands back into Indigenous hands.”

The magazine, whose cover art was made by Eloy Bida, has a punk aesthetic. This is in alignment with the long connection between Indigenous Peoples and punk:

For many punks belonging to indigenous cultures and First Nations, playing this genre means first of all imposing a discourse of indigenous resistance and decolonization paths, making punk really a threat and not just empty slogans shouted into a microphone. 

Disastro Sonoro website

I must come to a close by focusing on the title of this first issue, He Sapa: The Heart of Everything There Is. This is not an exaggeration. He Sapa, or the Black Hills, are sacred for the Nation of the Seven Council Fires. In Leonard Little Finger’ own words:

The Black Hills were recognized as the Black Hills because of the darkness from the distance. The term also referred to a container of meat; in those days people used a box made out of dried buffalo hide to carry spiritual tools, like the sacred pipe, or the various things that were used in prayers or to carry food. That’s the term that was used for the Black Hills: they were a container for our spiritual need as well as our needs of food and water, whatever it is that allows survival.

Leonard Little Finger, “We Walk on Our Ancestors: The Sacredness of the Black Hills”

Learn more about LANDBACK and view their manifesto here. You can also donate to the LANDBACK movement and follow the NDN Collective on Instagram for updates.