US President Donald Trump has railed against the “cancel culture” of those who toppled monuments during recent anti-racism protests, in a speech to mark 4 July at Mount Rushmore.
He said the South Dakota landmark would “stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom”.
“This monument will never be desecrated, these heroes will never be defaced,” he told a cheering crowd.
Mount Rushmore features the carved faces of four US presidents.
Activists have long taken issue with the national monument, which was created on land sacred to the Sioux, groups of Native-American tribes. Two of the former presidents depicted – George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – were slave-owners.
The president’s choice of location has been criticised at a time when statues of Confederate generals and slave-owners are being re-evaluated, and in many cases pulled down.
Following Mr Trump’s speech, a fireworks display set to music was held at the pre-Independence Day event, watched by about 7,500 ticket-holders.
The Republican president’s visit had raised fears over the potential spread of Covid-19, wildfire worries linked to the fireworks, and protests from Native American groups.
Masks and social distancing were not mandatory at the event, despite warnings by health officials.
The US recorded its largest single-day rise of coronavirus infections on Friday, bringing the total to more than 2.5 million – the most in the world.
What else did Trump say?
President Trump denounced the toppling of monuments during anti-racism protests, first triggered by the death of African-American man George Floyd in police custody.
“One of their political weapons is cancel culture,” Mr Trump said, suggesting the protesters’ actions amounted to “totalitarianism”.
Those who target “symbols of national heritage” would face “the fullest extent of the law”, Mr Trump said. He said those who defaced statues could be sentenced to 10 years in jail, referring to a recent executive order he signed on protecting monuments.
“The left-wing mob and those practising cancel culture are engaging in totalitarian behaviour that is completely alien to American life – and we must not accept it,” the president said.
Welcoming people to the event, South Dakota’s Republican Governor Kristi Noem echoed the president’s tone, accusing demonstrators of “trying to wipe away the lessons of history”.
“This is being done deliberately to discredit America’s founding principles,” she said.
Friday’s gathering was the latest to be held by President Trump during the coronavirus pandemic, as he attempts to fire up his supporters ahead of November’s presidential election.
The fireworks were the first at Mount Rushmore in over a decade, after a ban was imposed over environmental concerns.
The monument is surrounded by a national forest and some feared the display could set off wildfires in the dry brush, though local officials said the risk was low.
What have Native Americans said about the event?
Native American groups have criticised Mr Trump’s visit for posing a health risk, and for celebrating US independence in an area that is sacred to them.
Many Native Americans do not celebrate Independence Day because they associate it with the colonisation of their tribal homelands and the loss of their cultural freedoms.
The Mount Rushmore landmark was carved between 1927 and 1941, but the land it lies on – in the Black Hills of South Dakota – was taken from the indigenous Lakota Sioux by the US government in the 1800s.
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“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.
Ahead of the event, a group of mostly Native American protesters blocked a main road to the monument with white vans, leading to a tense stand-off with police.
They were eventually cleared from the road by police officers and National Guard soldiers, who used smoke bombs and pepper spray, local reports say.
The vans were towed away and several protesters were arrested after the police declared the road block an “unlawful assembly”, local newspaper the Argus Leader reported.