Owning, or perhaps hijacking, tribal history at Wounded Knee.

It seems that a landowner wants to sell the Oglala Sioux an important part of the Wounded Knee massacre site. Some 150 Native people, all killed by the 7th Cavalry on December 29, 1890, are buried on James Czywczynski’s land, and Czywczynski wants the Oglalas to have that land back. The catch, of course, is money. Land in that part of South Dakota isn’t especially pricey, and in this case it sounds like the 40 acres in question has a fair market value of less than $10,000. Czywczynski, though, wants $3.9 million. History costs.

Czywczynski believes his land is worth so much not only because it provided the setting for one of the bloodiest chapters in the West’s history, but also because of echoes of that violence in the relatively recent past. Czywczynski bought the land in 1968. He planned to start a business there — a museum and trading post — with an eye toward capitalizing on thousands of heritage tourists who visited Wounded Knee every year. But then, during the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, tribal activists burned Czywczynski’s buildings, robbing him of what he describes as “a wonderful opportunity to get into private enterprise.”

Apparently still angry about the incident, and unsatisfied with the insurance settlement he received more than thirty years ago, Czywczynski is seeking what he sees as fair recompense from the Oglalas. And if he doesn’t get his money by May 1, his land goes on the open market. Ever the entrepreneur, Czywczynski “is building a website to market [his property] to national and international bidders.” Czywczynski “adds that he has the utmost respect for the Wounded Knee burial site and the Lakota people. He would prefer the tribe develop his parcel into a tourist attraction rather than leave it at the mercy of an unknown entity”:

Say you buy it, you could do anything with it. You could set up apartments or a condominium or a casino; you could do anything of that nature. But it should be done correctly — the hallowed ground where these people died.

There are telling parallels with the the genesis of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. In that case, a local proprietor named Bill Dawson’s decision to sell part of the Sand Creek killing field led Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell to write his site study legislation (pdf) in 1998. Campbell, along with other Cheyenne and Arapaho people descended from Sand Creek’s victims, didn’t want soil consecrated with their forbears’ blood to fall into the hands of a developer who might not respect it as a site sacred to tribal peoples.

Unlike the case of Wounded Knee, though, Bill Dawson became friendly with the tribal descendants. After initially threatening to put his land up for sale to the highest bidder, Dawson worked closely with Senator Campbell and the Sand Creek descendants for years, using his property rights and their cultural authority to leverage the price he wanted — $1.5 million for land valued on the open market at approximately 1/10th that number — from a casino corporation that then handed the site over to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. The C and A, in turn, offered the casino corporation considerations in ongoing negotiations to manage the tribes’ gaming parlors. It was, all things considered, a good deal for all of the parties concerned. It did, however, complicate future land deals, including, perhaps, the one mentioned above at Wounded Knee. It’s difficult to know if James Czywczynski followed the story of the Sand Creek site, but the similarities are striking.

4 thoughts on “Owning, or perhaps hijacking, tribal history at Wounded Knee.

Leave a Reply