|The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Managing Editor. All content © Native Sun News.
Land owner, Jim Czywczynski meets with President Brewer and descendants.
Oglala Sioux Tribe President Bryan Brewer and Wounded Knee descendants.
Wounded Knee: Offer on the table
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Managing Editor
RAPID CITY—On Sunday Jim Czywczynski, owner of the national historic site of Wounded Knee, met face to face with descendants of the Wounded Knee massacre and Oglala Sioux Tribal President Bryan Brewer.
The unprecedented meeting that took place in the Native Sun News office in Rapid City was attended by Czywczysnki, President Brewer, and four descendants of Lakota people who were present at Wounded Knee on Dec 25, 1890, and this reporter. On that tragic day in 1890 the United States Calvary massacred approximately 300 Lakota men, women, and children. The four descendants present were Carmelita Eagle Chasing, Phyllis Hollow Horn, Linda Hollow Horn, and Belva Hollow Horn.
The gathering which was prompted at the request of the descendants and President Brewer was both an opportunity for all parties involved to share their thoughts for the first time to Czywczysnki on his decision to sell the land at Wounded Knee. As well as provide for President Brewer an opportunity to put forth an official offer from the tribe on the land for the first time.
During the meeting several factual revelations were exposed including how the land had originally passed from Indian ownership to that of non-Natives. According to official government documents brought to the meeting by the survivors association, the land at Wounded Knee was sold to Clive and Agnes Gildersleeve by a Lakota couple named Mattie Good Medicine-Looking Horse and Lois Good Medicine who had inherited the land from Julie Medicine Eagle in 1934. The amount paid for the site was $1,000.
For decades the Gildersleeves operated a trading post approximately 200 yards from the mass grave where the soldiers buried those who they had murdered on Dec 25, 1890. The purchase of the land was signed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier who had that very same year begun the implementation of his pet project the Indian Reorganization Act. This unprecedented policy brought to Indian country the democratic constitutional governments in place today and ousted the centuries old traditional forms of consensus based governance that were in place up until that point.
After a testy exchange between Linda Hollow Horn and Czywczysnki, the land owner admitted to purchasing the land from Clive and Agnes Gildersleeve. Linda Hollow Horn said that she had documentation that Czywczysnki paid $1,000 for the land. On Monday July 15, he said that he had paid $750,000 for the land at Wounded Knee. This fact had not been told to the public by Czywczysnki prior to the meeting and had been a point of constant inquiry ever since he had made the announcement of his intention to sell the land at Wounded Knee, and an additional tract of land at Porcupine Butte, in a package deal for $4.9 million several months ago.
Prior to any dialogue taking place Carmelita Eagle Chasing a Mni Coujou descendent from Cheyenne River sang a traditional Lakota prayer song which was followed by a prayer.
In an opening statement Oglala President Brewer outlined the position of the tribe and that of the descendants. During the initial verbal volley President Brewer proposed an innovative deal that he felt would benefit all involved.
“It would very difficult for anyone to buy the land and use it for any commercial purpose. The tribe owns the lands around the forty acres and the tribe would never give anyone an easement to develop it. What I am thinking and what I would like to propose is where you would benefit and the survivors would benefit. Right now no one would benefit,” said Brewer. “This land is really sacred land where our people died on it and I do not think it would ever be used for a commercial purpose. The survivors however would like to make it a nice place where they could educate the people. Our own people and those off the reservation… If we can make an agreement where you would benefit and the survivors would benefit. I would like to put that on the table,” he added.
The proposal that President Brewer spoke of was explained later in the meeting and called for Czywczysnki to receive his asking price of $4.9 million from any potential buyer who would gift the land back to the tribe and then donate half of the money back to the descendants for the possible erection of an “interpretive center."
Czywczysnki would explain that he had two other interested parties negotiating for the land with him. He would also state that he had granted first right of refusal to an anonymous donor in California. The first right of refusal allows for the potential buyer to match any offer that he may receive. President Brewer would also say that he had up to three separate donors that were willing to help the tribe acquire the land and that the tribe was open to accepting a donation from any or all of them. The descendants would also reiterate this sentiment after the meeting when they all concurred that they were open to receiving a donation of the land from a purchaser who “had their heart in the right place."
President Brewer made it a point to say that the tribe or the descendants would not be accepting any financial help from the Federal government due to their role in the 1890 massacre. He would also state during the meeting that he would be more than willing to pursue the land through Eminent Domain. A process that he would later state could tie up the land for years. However he felt that the best approach would be to enter in to a profit sharing agreement like the one he proposed that could potentially free up some funds for the descendants to create a place where they could tell their side of the story.
“The tribe does not have money to create a cultural center like the ones the descendants want. It would be an act of good faith for him to give back half and still walk away with money in his pocket. Everybody wins,” said Brewer to NSN.
After the meeting Czywczywnski said that he is seriously considering the offer and would not comment any further only adding that he thought that the meeting went well.
“I think that it was good that we all talked and that we all were able to get our positions out in front of one another.”
As the meeting continued the descendants expressed their belief the original purchase of the land was fraudulent. According to them when the land was originally sold it was not explained to the Native land owner or documented that the land was part of a historic event. The land according to documents that they claimed to possess was only listed as grassland and did not take in to account the historical significance of the site thus devaluing it from the beginning.
The meeting was not simply about business however as each of the descendants stated their concerns to Czywczysnki about his intention to profit of the land. Phyllis Hollow Horn asserted that unless you were from Wounded Knee it is very hard for someone to understand the spiritual connection that they have to the site and the mass grave when she addressed the seller.
“The only reason that land is worth that value is because of the blood of my grandmother and grandfather. For you to say that this is what it is worth you are saying that is the cost of what my ancestor’s blood is. You have to live there to know how our heart is there at Wounded Knee and we see and hear things that are connected to us spiritually,” said Phyllis. “When we were allowed to walk in after Wounded Knee (1973) after the occupation as we were walking we heard Chief Big Foot singing…After that we asked who was in Wounded Knee at the time and they said nobody… We have a connection to that mass grave that you can’t put a dollar value on…This is why people have a hard time understanding when we talk about money or capitalism. They are not connected to the old ways. But I keep my heart and head open when I am here. We are still going to fight for what is rightfully ours. My mother would say that they lie there in a state of sacredness,” she added.
Linda Hollow Horn would speak on how Wounded Knee is being exploited on the internet and at the site on a daily basis. She made the point that it is wrong to exploit Wounded Knee and that those connected to the site are forced to constantly be on guard against those who may intend to profit from the tragic events that took place in 1890.
“On the internet it is big time and at Wounded Knee. There are many forms of exploitation, vendors fighting over tourism dollars are pathetic…but I also see the need. There are no jobs and there is high unemployment and these people live on fixed incomes and that is what saddens me about this whole situation,” she said.
She would go on to say that because of the ever present potential for exploitation of the site the descendants had to be vigilant in watching out for those with the wrong intentions.
A significant part of the approximately hour long meeting was spent by the participants rehashing common experiences that were viewed through different lenses.
Brewer and the descendants told Czywczysnki that lease checks and paychecks that were addressed to individual tribal members in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were held for debt by the Gildersleeves during their tenure as keepers of the trading post that Czywczysnki would eventually come to own. In response Czywczysnki said the Gildersleeves never held checks back ever and that he knew this to be true because his wife was the postmaster at Wounded Knee from 1968 to 1973.
After this exchange the group recanted memories of their experiences at Wounded Knee during and after the 1973 takeover by the American Indian Movement.
Czywczysnki would recall how he had his home burned to the ground by members of the American Indian Movement. His trading post, his car and all his personal belongings burned and that he had never received compensation for his losses. This led to a rebuttal from all others present stating that they knew he had received an insurance payout for what he lost. Czywczysnki would admit to receiving $55,000 but that he had given forty of it to the bank and the remainder to the Gildersleeve family.
Belva Hollow Horn would respond by saying that multiple families in Wounded Knee also lost everything because of the takeover.
She said that Wounded Knee community members had no control over it and that, “it was outsiders who came in and my family lost everything. The community had no say so and no control and these people came and my parents lost everything Rachel and Oscar Hollow Horn and we lost very sentimental objects and we lost very personal belongings.”
The group would also say that they were still angry that people from outside their community had come in to Wounded Knee and done that.
President Brewer would remind Czywczysnki that many people lost everything and it was safe to say that he was not the only one.
The meeting became tense at times as emotion spilled out from the descendants who made it very clear that the money Czywczysnki was asking for was in fact blood money and that they themselves would want no part of profiting off of the dead there. During one of the more pointed exchanges Carmelita Eagle Chasing pointed at Czywczysnki and called him a “fur trader” and implied that he was set on profiting from exploitation. The descendants did however say that they are willing to accept a donation of the land if someone would step forward and give them the land after purchasing it from Czywczysnki.
After the seller left the meeting the group of women and President Brewer discussed strategy going forward if a deal is to be reached. Several of the descendants mentioned a need and a desire to have an interpretive center built and Linda Hollow Horn stated that she hoped a scholarship fund could also be established in remembrance of what took place at the site.
A counter offer is expected from the land owner according to President Brewer however he did say that the 50/50 split he proposed was non-negotiable.
“If he does not want to work with us and give some back to where everyone can benefit then we will go after the land through Eminent Domain. We have lawyers who have told us that they are ready when we are,” he said.
(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at email@example.com)
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