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article imageSite of Wounded Knee massacre up for sale, sparks controversy

By JohnThomas Didymus     Apr 1, 2013 in Environment
Rapid City - The site of Wounded Knee where US troops massacred men, women and children more than a century ago is up for sale. The decision by James Czywczynski to put the site he owns up for sale at an asking price of $3.9 million has sparked a controversy.
The Oglala Sioux, among the poorest groups in the United States, are interested in purchasing the site to recover lost tribal property. But they say the site is worth only $7,000. James Czywczynski of Rapid City argues that $3.9 million is a fair estimate of the value of the land due to its historical and sentimental value.
The Oglala Sioux natives protest that the situation in which a tract of land that should be a national monument becomes the private property of a non-Indian is bad enough. In their view, it pours salt in the wound when that person dares presume he is competent to assess the "historical and sentimental" value of the land and try to sell it to the rightful owners at an exorbitant price.
According to The New York Times, Garfield Steele, a member of the local tribal council, said: "That historical value means something to us, not him. We see that greed around here all the time with non-Indians. To me, you can’t put a price on the lives that were taken there."
Native Americans are understandably sensitive about issues of land ownership in the context of their historical relationship with the United States that involved dispossession and treacherous dealings. The site of Wounded Knee, in particular, is of prime historical significance in Native American history as the site of a major massacre in the so-called American Indian wars.
According to the US version of the story, Wounded Knee massacre occurred on Dec. 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was the last battle of the American Indian wars.
A detachment of the US 7th Cavalry Regiment commanded by Major Samuel M. Whitside intercepted a band of Miniconjou Lakota and Hunkpapa Lakota natives led by Spotted Elk near Porcupine Butte and forced them to camp at Wounded Knee Creek.
On the morning of December 29, the US troops went into the camp to disarm the men. According to the US version of the story, a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote resisted attempts to disarm him and in the struggle a shot was fired. US troops opened fire in response. The few Lakota fighters who still had guns fired back. In the ensuing melee, US troops overwhelmed the Lakota warriors and shooting indiscriminately they killed at least 150 men, women and children of the Lakota Sioux and wounded 51.
US Military authorities awarded twenty troopers the Medial of Honor for the massacre.
Wounded Knee was also later the site of a violent clash in 1973 between a group of native activists, the American Indian Movement and US Marshals.
Central to the grievance of the Native Americans is the question of ownership of the land. The tribe wants to acquire the land, but some raise the question of the propriety of Native Americans buying land which from their perspective was stolen from them. The question is aggravated by what appears to them the "greed" of the present owner asking $3.9 million for what they see, on undeniably legitimate historical grounds, to be their "ancestral property," and rightfully a National Historic Landmark.
Other vexing questions being raised by members of the tribe, according to The New York Times, are "Should the land be developed or preserved as sacred? Should the tribe, whose people are among the poorest in America, capitalize on what happened here?"
The core questions are of a moral-ethical nature with legal ramifications.
Mass grave at Wounded Knee  1891
Mass grave at Wounded Knee, 1891
Library of Congress
The Great Sioux Nation also faced a similar quandary last year over a vast tract of prairie land, the Pe' Sla sacred land, of religious and cultural significance to the nation. The land that the Great Sioux consider a sacred site was put up for sale by a non-Indian. The Sioux, fearing that the land would be "desecrated" by commercial developers, raised $9 million and bought the 1,942 acres.
But, unfortunately, in the case of the Oglala Sioux tribe, the prospects of raising $3.9 million to buy the Wounded Knee site are not bright. According to The New York Times, the tribe's treasurer Mason Big Crow, said the tribe is at least $60 million in debt and could not raise the money without acquiring more debt.
The land owned by Czywczynski passed to non-Indian hands during a process of allotment by the federal government in the late 1800s. Czywczynski purchased the land in 1968. He lived there until 1973 when he was forced to move after the violent protest in 1973. According to Czywczynski, he has been trying to sell the land to the Oglala Sioux but he said internal wrangling within the tribe hindered the effort. The New York Times reports he said: "They never could agree on anything. 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."
But the Oglala Sioux president, Bryan V. Brewer, said he did not think it was right for the tribe to pay for something that rightfully belongs to it.
Nathan Blindman, 56, comments on the moral-ethical dilemma of the tribe with regard to development of the land for commercial purposes if acquired: "Whenever we discuss this Wounded Knee massacre topic, it takes us into a deep, deep psychological state because we have to relive the whole horror. Anything that might indicate that as descendants we’re profiting from our ancestors’ tragedy, we can’t ever do that."
But the sensitivity of the Native Americans to the the issue of "profiting from our ancestors" appears to many misplaced. The area of Shannon County has one of the highest percentage of people living below poverty in the US. Nearly three-quarters of the people in the county are either unemployed or not in the work force, according to census data. Others point out the fact that many of the tribe are already profiting from the site selling crafts to tourist. A Wounded Knee native Garry Rowland even has a one-room visitor center next to the mass grave of the massacre victims.
But Rowland, who claims that his great-great-grandfather Chief Fire Lightning, owned the land, said: "We don’t charge admission to our museum. We’re just trying to preserve what history took place here. We tell the truth of what happened."
A Native, Lillian Red Star Fire Thunder, 79, supports developing the land for commercial purposes, saying with sagely eloquence: "That was yesterday; tomorrow is going to be tomorrow. They should think about the future for the children, the families."
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