Tim Giago: Oglala Sioux Tribe should buy Wounded Knee land

The other side of Wounded Knee By Tim Giago

The Wounded Knee Trading Post was started in the early 1930s. At the time of its construction and during the years it operated there were never any complaints from the Survivors of Wounded Knee.

The store was owned and operated in the 1930s until the late 1960s by Clive and Agnes Gildersleeve. It was not only a grocery store and meat market; it was also a gift shop and U. S. Post Office. During that time they employed many Lakota people. A rumor was instigated by the American Indian Movement to supposedly justify their takeover and destruction of Wounded Knee that the Gildersleeves ripped off the people of the community by holding their checks when they came to the Post Office and by other nefarious means.

First of all, it is against federal law to withhold the mail of anyone and the Gildersleeves could have been federally prosecuted for taking such actions. Clive and Agnes knew this and anyone who knew them would immediately say that the accusation against them was false.

The Gildersleeves often extended credit for groceries to their customers. One must remember that when the Gildersleeves first started their business the United States was suffering in the throes of the Great Depression. Some Wounded Knee residents could have suffered greatly if the Gildersleeves had not stepped forward to help them. Agnes was an Ojibwe Indian from Minnesota.

Clive Gildersleeve once said that in those olden days when a Lakota accepted a loan of groceries and meat and shook hands and said they would pay for it, they paid for it. He said that in those days the word of a Lakota was as solid as a rock. He said that the Lakota of those days never walked away from a debt. Many of the present day Lakota elders would agree with that.

For anyone who did not know the Gildersleeves and believed such slanderous and libelous accusations against them, they are only taking the words of the people who invaded a Lakota community and destroyed it and tried to justify their criminal acts by painting the Gildersleeves as the culprits and not as the victims. One longtime member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe said that he had never heard anyone ever accuse the Gildersleeves of wrongdoing.

When Jim Czywczynski purchased the Wounded Knee Trading Post in 1968 he continued to build it into a thriving business. He added a Lakota Museum and an art gallery. He provided jobs and homes for the local citizens. He didn’t just by the land, but he bought a thriving Trading Post, gas station, grocery store, gift shop stocked with priceless artifacts, and the other buildings located at Wounded Knee. He estimates he paid $400,000 for the business and buildings.

When Wounded Knee was overrun in 1973 and burned to the ground, Czywczynski lost everything as did all of the residents of Wounded Knee. He was afraid to rebuild the store because of threats that it would be destroyed again. And so it lay vacant for 40 years. If Czywczynski had earned $200,000 in income each year, the loss of income over those 40 years would have amounted to $8 million dollars. He is asking for about half of what he lost over all of those years. His former employees and the Oglala Sioux Tribe itself lost many thousands of dollars all the while the Trading Post was shutdown.

For those who consider him to be just a “greedy old white guy” they do not know the entire story. You will not find a single former employee of his that does not speak highly of him.

These are they things every member of the OST should know before passing judgment. The response to build a Native American Holocaust Museum on the site to honor the dead from the massacre and the dead from all massacres of indigenous people is strong and growing. The Oglala Sioux Tribe should raise the money to buy the land and get on with building the museum that will pay for itself a thousand times over.

A final note: My father, Tim Sr., worked at the Wounded Knee Trading Post in the 1930s. He always respected the Gildersleeves. My family lived in one of the cabins next to the Wounded Knee Trading Post. My playmate as a child was Joanne Gildersleeve, the daughter of Clive and Agnes, and she has remained my friend through all of these years.

(Tim Giago can be reached at unitysodak1@knology.com)