Opinion

Charles Trimble: Saving sacred ground -- Wounded Knee saga





As the May 1st deadline approaches for the auctioning of the Wounded Knee land by owner James Czywczynski, I hope any source that may offer to buy the land for any purpose, even to gift it to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, will not reward the greed and guile of Czywczynski by paying anywhere near the outrageous price of $4.9 million he is asking. I surely hope the tribe will not use its own meager financial resources to purchase the land.

Recently I have been contacted by Clive and Agnes Gildersleeves’ only child, JoAnn, and her niece Adrienne Fritze. The Gildersleeves were the owners of the Wounded Knee store and the land on which the store stood for over sixty years. The land – some forty acres – encompasses the grounds on which the infamous massacre of 1890 occurred, but not the cemetery which holds the mass grave where more than a hundred twenty five victims of the massacre were dumped by local white ranchers and other laborers who were hired by the US Army to perform the grisly task.

My communication with them reveals a story of deception and bullying on the part of outside interests who bought into the Wounded Knee enterprise ostensibly to help the aging owners run the store as partners. These new partners, including Czywczynski, dreamed up and promoted the development of an abominable monument and tourist complex on the Wounded Knee site. This was in 1971-72, two years prior to the AIM occupation of the site. From the telling by the Gildersleeve descendants, the elderly store owners were pretty much hoodwinked and lost everything that might have given them a decent life in their retirement. The experience of being held hostage by the AIM occupiers, then seeing all they owned go up in flames and their lands seized by the bank, shortened their lives and left them destitute and totally dependent on Medicaid and on their children.

Subsequently, James Czywczynski bought the land from the bank – “for a song,” as one member of the family put it. So, it appears that the only winner in the play out of this historic tragedy is Czywczynski, who may well become a multimillionaire by holding hostage those sacred grounds that accrued to him from his wiles.

As we should have learned, that’s the way business is done here in the United States: “possession is ninety percent of the law,” as it is said; thus the man in possession can set any price he wants, and if the tribe wants that sacred and historic tract bad enough, they must pay the price.

Nothing new here; we’ve been there before, at PeSla and elsewhere, and we’ve paid the price – dearly. But we really don’t have to pay this exorbitant ransom; there are other possible options to consider.

In an email he sent to Stew Magnuson, author of the book Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding, Czywczynski asked, almost tauntingly:
“Is the Oglala Sioux Tribe & Wounded Knee Survivor's Ass’n, all Indian Tribes and all Indians going to let this hallowed ground be sold. To some outsiders???
Have those who died in 1890 died in vain because those in charge do not have the foresight to save the hallowed ground known as: NAT'L HISTORIC SITE OF WOUNDED KNEE.”

To his credit, Magnuson responded:
“Hold on. Aren't you an outsider?

“If you did sell it to an "outsider," wouldn't it then be the status quo?

The folks you are mailing your sales pitch to would be interested in this accurate telling by Charles Trimble in the link below of your failed plan to exploit this sacred site for personal gain back in the late 1960s….
During one of the Wounded Knee Trials in the 1970s, you evoked your Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate yourself when asked about your businesses practices at the Wounded Knee Trading Post a whopping 95 times. I don't know who this ‘outsider’ might be, but chances are the OST couldn't do any worse.”

One of the options was unwittingly suggested by Czywczynski: that of getting the site in the National Registry of Historic Places, which might put restrictions on the land to prevent exploitation for unwanted development. Even the process of securing that status could allow the tribe to put a hold on any further activity on the part of outside exploiters.

Or the Tribe might enact its own law relative to Eminent Domain. The Tribe and its legal experts need to study the recent history of the ownership of that land, and their options to avoid paying the ransom to regain what is rightfully theirs.

Several years ago, the topic came up in an Op-Ed piece by columnist Tim Giago and another by me as to who the real victims were in the wake of the Wounded Knee occupation by the AIM in 1973. Giago maintained that it was the tribal townspeople whose homes were occupied during the siege and generally looted and trashed, as well as the owners of the local trading post and museum whose properties were completely destroyed by fire. I did not dispute that the homeowners were the ultimate victims, but I did insinuate that the store and museum owners were hardly blameless, and gave as an example the ill-conceived and greedy attempt a year before the occupation to develop the sacred grounds into a tourist trap with a monstrous and insulting monument, along with a motel, gift shops and restaurant to exploit the trade the monument would attract.

Now I must say that Tim Giago was right, and I was, at best, not completely wrong.

In our rush to identify “villains and victims,” as Giago put it, we do twist facts. I must admit to having done so in my own account of AIM’s demonstrations against the bad treatment of Indians in border towns adjacent to reservations. This was brought on by the brutal beating death of Oglala Lakota laborer Raymond Yellow Thunder at the hands of young white thugs in the town of Gordon, Nebraska.

At that time, the issue of Reservation Traders held national attention, and Congress was holding hearings on the problems, and there was much testimony about practices on the part of such Traders to cheat Indian customers who were totally dependent on them for sustenance. The publicity of the Trader issue motivated AIM to take their demonstration on from Gordon, Nebraska, to Wounded Knee and there to confront the Gildersleeves and especially Czywczynski, who was accused of using brutal force to remove a Lakota youth from the store. The confrontation turned ugly and some demonstrators went into the small museum adjacent to the store and took valuable artifacts from displays.

Along with Yakama journalist Richard LaCourse, I covered the event for the American Indian Press Association and the new Oglala Nation News we helped set up at Pine Ridge. In my reportage, I gave examples I had read in reports of the Congressional hearings of cheating and exploiting Indian consumers by giving easy credit and allowing them to accrue large debts and thereby amassing valuable collections of Indian arts by default. Although I did not directly accuse the Gildersleeves of such practices, and had no indication that they were guilty of any, the implication was there in my story.

Upon reading my article, one of my older sisters took me to task for reporting something I knew nothing about. Another of my sisters agreed, and defended the Gildersleeves and their business.

I must admit to being caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the times, as were other Indian reporters. But I did a grave injustice, for now I realize that there was another “victim” I didn’t consider – the precious family histories and pride of heritage that were tarnished by my shoddy reportage. It is something that has bothered me over the years, and I had started several times to write an apology. I hope this might serve as an apology.

JoAnn Gildersleeve Feraca, Adrienne Fritze, and Gildersleeve grandchildren are much troubled by the inaccurate accounts of what occurred and by the depictions of her parents and family as greedy villains by so-called historians like Akim Reinhardt and others. New books will continue to be published on the topic of WKII, and with each new telling these inaccuracies will seem to be confirmed and validated.

Ms. Feraca wanted to know if I could help get the truth out in the media, and help exonerate her parents. I have known JoAnn and her family for over sixty years, and knew them to be kind and decent people, and much respected in the Wounded Knee community. Perhaps this telling will help start the process of truth and fact, forgiveness and healing, and of putting Wounded Knee in its proper perspective as a place made sacred by the blood of innocent Dakota and Lakota people who had visions of freedom and redemption promised in the Ghost Dance; not a venue for political or commercial exploitation.

Charles "Chuck" Trimble, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, NE. He can be contacted at cchuktrim@aol.com and his website is www.iktomisweb.com.

More from Charles Trimble:
Charles Trimble: Indian Country becomes united on the Internet (04/15)
Charles Trimble: The wonderful remarkable life of an Oglala centenarian (04/01)