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Wounded Knee Massacre Site Not a Good Investment for Speculators

A news story on tells that James A. Czywczynski, owner the lands where the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre took place, is offering to sell that 40-acre sacred site for $3.9 million. The decision to sell the land and to offer the right of first refusal to the Lakota people was obviously motivated by the Pe’Sla story which was much in the news at the end of 2012.

In the story Czywczynski is quoted as saying “I could offer (the Wounded Knee land) up for public auction like the Runnels did with Pe’Sla, but I would prefer that the Lakota people be the ones to purchase it.”
The Pe’Sla purchase is a wonderful story of Indian people uniting to save that sacred ground in the Black Hills from development and desecration. The Runnels family, which owned the Pe’Sla site, was asking $9 million dollars. Led by the Rosebud Lakota Nation, the funding to purchase the parcel was raised from tribal and individual sources, much of it through the Internet.

In considering this recent offer Lakota people need to revisit the circumstances surrounding Mr. Czywczynski’s ownership of the land and property in the first place.

The land and trading post were purchased in the early 1930s by Clive Gildersleeve, a white man from Minnesota, and his wife Agnes, who was an enrolled member of the White Earth Chippewa tribe. At that time, the store was called the Wounded Knee Battle Field Trading Post. Over the years, the Gildersleeves were generally respected and well-liked in the local community.

In 1968, some private interests in Rapid City, South Dakota had worked up plans for a massive marble monument over the mass grave of massacre victims, and a national campaign to raise funds for its construction. Although it was initially presented as a way of honoring the Indians slaughtered there, it became apparent quickly that the real purpose was to make money for a new motel/restaurant tourism complex that was part of their overall plan.

These speculators had incorporated two organizations: a for-profit company called the Sioux Corporation, and a non-profit Wounded Knee Memorial Association. The non-profit would have a seat on its Board of Advisors for a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council; otherwise there would be no other tribal or Indian representation in the project. The name of the for-profit Sioux Corporation was obviously chosen to give the impression that it was an Indian owned enterprise.

The monument, according to the preliminary design, consisted of two long marble tiers: the first level would feature several marble blocks, and on each of these would rest a sculptured bust, presumably of principles in the “battle”—both on the Indian side and on the cavalry side. The second tier, much higher than the first, would feature a very tall neo-classical column on top of which would burn an eternal flame. Emitting from the base of the monolithic column was a blotch of red terrazzo, meant to look like blood oozing out of the column and flooding down the steps in all four directions.

But the most offensive feature of the design was to be a fence of crossed cavalry sabers surrounding a sunken crypt on the higher tier; and in the crypt would be the remains of the massacre victims. These would be exhumed and re-entombed in the marble crypt.

The first major hurdle that stood in the way was that of securing the land on which the church and the cemetery were situated, which were owned by the Holy Rosary Mission at Pine Ridge. The Jesuit Superior at the Mission, Rev. Ted Zuern, S.J., was approached by the speculators, and as a means of softening him up to sell the property, was invited to serve on the Board of Advisors, along with Senator George McGovern and other influential people.

Zuern reportedly was horrified at the idea, and especially the design that was shown to him. He asked if they had consulted the Oglala Sioux Tribe, or the people in the Wounded Knee community. They had not, but it was clear that they assumed the Lakota would buy into the plan when they realized the amounts of money the monument would bring in.

Zuern then went to the tribal council and met with their executive committee about the situation. They too expressed objection to the plans, although it appeared that a couple of them had already been individually approached and were warm to the idea.

Fearing that the speculators, led by Mr. Czywczynski, might go to the Bishop of the Rapid City Diocese to override his objection to the project, Father Zuern subsequently ceded the forty acres of land, including the cemetery, back to the tribe as a means of protecting the land from future speculation of that sort.

As word spread throughout the reservation and the region via the Rapid City Journal and the new Oglala Nation News, Indian opposition grew. The plans were eventually abandoned when it appeared that the chances of its being completed were obviously nil.

The upshot was that the Czywczynski group had already purchased the Gildersleeve store and their property, which included most of the massacre site and the ravine in which the most wanton slaughter took place. Gildersleeve himself was given a position on the Board of the new for-profit corporation and would have profited nicely if the plan had gone through. This is what angered many Lakota people who had respected the Gildersleeve family for many years.

Following the 1973 WKII occupation by the American Indian Movement, in which the store and a small museum – which were then owned by Czywczynski – were destroyed by fire, an effort was made by the National Council of Churches (NCC) and others to negotiate a settlement concerning damages and to purchase of the lands. In his excellent account in the book Wounded Knee II, Roland Dewing described what happened:

“When Czywczynski estimated a high figure, by his own judgment, of $1,025,000, the [NCC] group did not ‘bat an eye.’ When asked how much it would cost to buy the corporation outright, Czywczynski said he would sell for $2,500,000 with thirty percent down and guaranteed payment or cash.”

Although nearly thirty years of inflation and other factors might justify a considerable rise in cost for the damage restitution and purchase of the land, a sixty five percent increase seems hardly justified, given the obviously-inflated figures he started with in 1974. Nevertheless, he seems to feel that the Oglalas—and the Catholic priest—had screwed him out of his dreams of wealth back then, and they’ll pay for it now.

Back in the mid-1970s, then-Senator Tom Daschle had proposed legislation that would have established the Wounded Knee massacre site and the cemetery there as a National Tribal Memorial Park. This prototype would have included federal funding for physical restoration of the site and its perpetual upkeep. Although it would be funded under the National Parks Service, the Wounded Knee site would have remained in ownership of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and would have been run by the tribe, creating jobs as administrators, maintenance workers, and rangers. The concept would not only have commemorated that historic tragedy and honored victims of the massacre, but also would have brought visitors to the reservation and revenue for the local economy.

However the Wounded Knee Survivors Association and outside supporters put a stop to the legislation. Their reason was that they did not want anyone exploiting their honored dead by making money from the sacred site. That put an end to a development that would have had the sanction and full force of tribal authority, federal funding as well as considerable economic benefit for the community. Yet the tribe declined the offer. Considering this, the chances of the Czywczynski’s prospective buyers profiting from their investment on that sacred ground would seem like a risk they might not want to take.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is