When Stephen Vincent Benet penned the line “bury my heart at wounded knee” back in 1927, he had no idea it would come to symbolize Native American activism and a movement to ensure American history got another perspective. Indeed, the poem in which the phrase first appeared, “American Names,” made no mention of the massacre of the Lakota Indians that occurred 42 years earlier at Wounded Knee. It was historian Dee Brown who brought that story to the masses with his landmark 1970 bestseller “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.”
Some still call the Wounded Knee massacre of Dec. 29, 1890, a “battle,” but by most estimates, the U.S. government’s 7th Cavalry killed anywhere from 150 to 300 largely unarmed Lakota men, women and children. The incident signaled the end of the so-called Indian Wars, but what to do with land on which the Lakota were killed has remained a contentious issue ever since.
It fell from the Oglala Lakota tribe into private hands through the process of allotment, which began in the late 1800s. Essentially, the federal government divided land among the Native Americans and gave other parcels to non-natives.
James Czywczynski of Rapid City, S.D., purchased the 40-acre plot of private land from its previous owner in 1968, but moved away in 1973 after the infamous American Indian Movement occupation, in which militants seized his trading post, home, vehicles and personal belongings for 71 days. He claims no restitution was ever made, and after decades of sitting on the property, decided at the start of 2013 to give the Oglala Lakota Nation’s tribal council, who represent Wounded Knee, an ultimatum: Pay for the property by May 1 or it will be sold to a private investor.
As one might imagine, this didn’t go over well. At the heart of the debate raging on Native American blogs and newspapers across the West is this: Should the Oglala of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, one of the poorest places in the U.S., have to pay $3.9 million for the land where as many as 300 of their forefathers were massacred?
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Local papers have put the actual worth of a 40-acre parcel of desolate prairie in Shannon County, S.D., at $7,000, but Czywczynski points to its cultural significance and his own loss of property four decades ago as reasons for the high asking price.
He claims a government expert told him to start with a price of $100,000 per acre for the land, which does not include the Wounded Knee Memorial or the Sacred Heart Cemetery, where some 150 victims are buried.
Czywczynski told the New York Times last week that he’s been trying to sell the land to the Oglala Sioux for three decades.
“They never could agree on anything,” he said. “They either did not have the money; some wanted it, some didn’t want it; it was too high, too low. I’ve come to the conclusion now, at my age, I’m 74 years old, I’m going to sell the property.”
Czywczynski, who said he ultimately hoped to sell the property to the tribe, claims to have at least five non-native investors who are all interested in turning the site into a tourist attraction. The Oglala Lakota Nation’s tribal council has argued, however, that it controls access to the site and has the upper hand in ensuring no unwanted developments take place.
But one of the biggest problems the council faces is a stark divide within its own ranks. Some want to build a memorial, while others feel there is a need for economic developments. More still believe that to benefit financially from their ancestors’ tragedy would be unthinkable.
“I am very tired of seeing the gravesite of our ancestors exploited,” Calvin Spotted Elk, descendant of Chief Spotted Elk, the tribal leader killed at Wounded Knee, wrote in an open letter. “If this were any other grave site in the country, this would not be happening. This is a sacred site and it needs to be respected.”
The Rapid City, S.D.-based Native Sun News takes a slightly different approach to the matter.
“The site should be declared as a national historical site by the National Park Service and preserved for the sake of the Lakota People,” an editorial by a member of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation reads. “If all of the people involved, including the elected members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, could put aside their differences, something good could come of this.”
The writer suggests a special visitor center and museum on the site where the old trading post once stood, noting that such a memorial would draw visitors from around the world to “honor the dead, to study their history, and to once and for all learn about the tragic circumstances that led to the massacre.
“The construction of a site at Wounded Knee and the eventual staffing and operation of the site would bring hundreds of jobs to the Pine Ridge Reservation. A clean and safe place for the artists and craftsmen of the reservation to sell their wares would also contribute greatly to the economy of the reservation.”
Yet, a proposed park managed by the National Park Service, or NPS, isn’t exactly a new idea. NPS named the battlefield a national historic landmark in 1966, and NPS officials have met with the tribal council to discuss making the site a national park several times over the years. In the end, however, too many people on the reservation disagreed.
If the U.S. government would change its official line on the actions of the 7th Cavalrymen and posthumously strip them of their Medals of Honor, then many Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation say they, too, would be willing to change their tune and work with the Department of Interior on a park.
If Czywczynski inks a deal with one of his prospective buyers after May 1, Lakota activists have promised protests, lawsuits and everything in their power to prevent any development.
Even if someone purchases the land and donates it to the Oglala Lakota, it would likely stay exactly as it is: untouched. And that’s precisely what many in the area want.