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Site of Wounded Knee massacre up for sale

by JOHN ELIGON New York Times News Service on March 31, 2013 2:30 AM

WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. — Ever since American soldiers massacred men, women and children here more than a century ago in the last major bloodshed of the American Indian wars, this haunted patch of rolling hills and ponderosa pines has embodied the combustible relationship between Indians and the United States government.

It was here that a group of Indian activists aired their grievances against the government with a forceful takeover in 1973 that resulted in protests, a bloody standoff with federal agents and deep divisions among the Indian people.

And now the massacre site, which passed into non-Indian hands generations ago, is up for sale, once again dragging Wounded Knee to the center of the Indian people’s bitter struggle against perceived injustice — as well as sowing rifts within the tribe over whether it would be proper, should the tribe get the land, to develop it in a way that brings some money to the destitute region.

James A. Czywczynski, of Rapid City, is asking $3.9 million for the 40-acre plot he owns here, far more than the $7,000 that the deeply impoverished Oglala Sioux say the land is worth. Czywczynski insists that his price fairly accounts for the land’s sentimental and historical value, an attitude that the people here see as disrespect.

“That historical value means something to us, not him,” said Garfield Steele, a member of the tribal council who represents Wounded Knee.

Land disputes strike an emotional chord for American Indians, given the United States’ long history of neglected promises and broken treaties. The clash over Wounded Knee is raising the moral, legal and social quandaries that have burdened generations of American Indians. Should they even have to buy land that they believe was stolen from them? 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 massacre on Dec. 29, 1890, was said to have started when a shot rang out as soldiers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry searched Chief Big Foot’s band, which it had arrested and detained here.

(Some Indians hypothesize that the massacre was retribution for the routing of Gen. George Custer and his troops at the Little Bighorn 14 years earlier.)

Estimates of the death toll vary from 150 to more than 300, with some of the bodies recovered on the land Czywczynski owns.

The land is believed to have gotten into non-Indian hands sometime after a process of allotment began in the late 1800s in which the federal government divided land among the Indians and gave some parcels to non-Indians.

Czywczynski bought the land in 1968, lived there and ran the trading post and museum. He moved away in 1973. Czywczynski said he had been trying to sell the land to the Oglala Sioux for about three decades, and he blamed the tribe’s internal disorder for his inability to do so.

“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.”

If the tribe does not buy it by May 1, Czywczynski said, he will put it up for auction on the open market.

The Oglala Sioux president, Bryan V. Brewer, said, “I don’t think we should buy something back that we own.” He added that he would leave it up to the descendants of the massacre to plan a way forward.

But that promises to be tricky. There is considerable disagreement over whether the tribe should profit from Wounded Knee through, for instance, developing tourist attractions.

“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,” said Nathan Blindman, 56, one of whose ancestors survived the massacre. “Anything that might indicate that as descendants we’re profiting from our ancestors’ tragedy, we can’t ever do that.”

Phyllis Hollow Horn, 56, whose great-grandmother and great-aunt were among the survivors, said she would be open to an educational memorial, but was hesitant about seeing the tribe profit.

“How and who should do that is a whole big question,” she said. “Ultimately, that’s a decision the descendants have to make.”

Some have advocated for development like a gas station and a general store to save on the roughly 20-minute drive to Pine Ridge for basic amenities. They also say that building a motel would help attract visitors.

While she respects the lives lost in the massacre, Lillian Red Star Fire Thunder, a 79-year-old Wounded Knee resident, said she disagreed with those who “make it sound like it’s taboo” to develop the land.

“That was yesterday; tomorrow is going to be tomorrow,” she said. “They should think about the future for the children, the families.”

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