Charles Trimble: The facts about the high stakes at Wounded Knee

Charles “Chuck” Trimble. Courtesy photo

Facts about the high stakes at Wounded Knee
By Charles "Chuck" Trimble

In his April 12, 2016 Indianz.com column Tim Giago writes, “When I decided to take on the task of buying the land at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota from the white landowner, James Czywczynski, I knew there would be tongues wagging, heads nodding, and even some hints of hate. The fact that I intended to raise the money to buy the land so that it could be put into trust for the Sioux Tribes apparently fell on deaf ears to some and raised the hopes of others. It is the words of encouragement from so many that keeps me going.”

Typical of Giago’s responses to questions about his writings or dealings, he presents himself as a courageous-but-innocent man just trying to do what’s best for the people – and always in the face of “wagging tongues, nodding heads and hints of hate” on the part of ever-suspicious cynics.

But this isn’t simply a story of Tim Giago assuming the “task” of purchasing the land from the current owner, who happens to be a white man, and turning the land over to several Sioux tribes; in other words, returning Indian lands back to rightful owners. If that is the case, why would he present so much falsehood in defense of his actions; for example this rationale on the price:
The thing most people found to be outrageous was the asking price for the land which had been declared a National Historic Site by the U. S. Government. Czywczynski was asking $3.9 million for it and even I found that to be outlandish.

He bought the land in 1968 from Clive and Agnes Gildersleeve for almost 1 million, according to him. The land consisted of 40 acres, the Wounded Knee Trading Post and a small village of several homes that housed the Gildersleeve’s and some of their Lakota employees.

First of all, Giago must know that Czywczynski “invested” in the WK trading post and property; he didn’t buy the property and he certainly didn’t pay anywhere near a million dollars to the Gildersleeves. And although Giago qualifies that claim by adding “according to him,” Czywczynski isn’t an unknown person to Giago. As he tells in the following in the following e-mail exchange I had with Giago about his relationship with Czywczynski two years ago:
From: Chuck [cchuktrim@aol.com] to Tim Giago
Sent: Friday, May 30, 2014 11:31 AM

Tim: I'm curious: I have heard it surmised that you are in on a deal with Jim Czywczynski on your idea for a Holocaust Museum. Is there any truth to that?

Giago responded that same day:
From: Tim Giago
To: Chuck
Sent: Fri, May 30, 2014 1:21 pm

Jim is an old friend and has given my writer Brandon Ecoffey exclusives on his efforts to sell his land. Where do these rumors start? I would like to see a Holocaust Museum at Wounded Knee, but I don’t think Jim cares one way or the other. All he wants to do is sell his land. I’m going to be 80 in July and hardly have the time to get involved in anything else.”

As an “old friend,” it seems that Giago would have known the facts behind Czywczynski’s ownership of the WK property and the absurdity of his claim that he suffered losses of four million dollars over the years of his ownership. These claims are obviously meant to justify his asking price – a price that Giago obviously supports if he means to raise the money, despite his admission that he feels it is outlandish.

I have been following this circus since 1968 when I covered the story for the American Indian Press Association, and here again is the true story from my files and recollections.

In late 1968, some entrepreneurs in Rapid City, South Dakota, had devised a scheme to raise funds nationally to erect a humongous marble monument over the mass grave of Wounded Knee massacre victims as a means of attracting tourists to the site. Although it was initially presented as a way of “paying back the Indians for the grave injustice of the 1890 massacre,” it quickly became obvious that the real purpose was to make money for the complex of motel, restaurant and curio shop that were part of the overall plan.

Confident of their scheme, these speculators had incorporated two organizations: a for-profit called the Sioux Corporation (although no Indians were involved), and a non-profit corporation called the Wounded Knee Memorial Association. The non-profit would have a single slot on its Board of Advisors for a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council; otherwise there would be no other tribal or Indian interest in the project.

In the preliminary design, the monument would consist of two massive marble slabs, the first leading up to a level on which would stand several marble pedestals and on each of these would rest a sculptured bust of a principle in the “battle,” including cavalry officers, presumably. The second tier would feature a very tall neo-Grecian marble column on top of which would burn an eternal flame. Emitting from the base of the monolithic column would be streams of red Terrazzo, meant to look like blood flooding down the stairs in all four directions.

But the most repulsive feature of the design was to be a fence made up of cavalry sabers surrounding a sunken crypt which would contain the bones of the massacre victims, which would be exhumed from the mass grave and entombed in the marble crypt.

As plans were made public in the Rapid City Journal and word spread further throughout the reservation, Indian opposition grew.

The upshot is that the slick speculators from the city had already bought into the Gildersleeve business, which included the Trading Post and adjoining property. Clive Gildersleeve and his wife were well along in years and he was becoming physically unable to handle the business, so he went along with the plan.

Several years ago I was contacted by the Gildersleeves’ only child, JoAnn, and her cousin Adrienne Fritze. My communication with them revealed a story of deception and bullying on the part of Czywczynski who bought into the Wounded Knee enterprise ostensibly to help the aging owners run the store. This was two years prior to the AIM occupation of the site.

As Giago tells of Czywczynski’s claim to have paid the Gildersleeves a million dollars, it must be pointed out that he purchased the land from the bank in Gordon, Nebraska, which had foreclosed on the lands when the Gildersleeves defaulted on the loan secured by that land. They defaulted because their business was destroyed by AIM, and they had no source of income.

From the telling by the Gildersleeve descendants, the elderly store owners were pretty much hoodwinked and bullied by Czywczynski and his cohorts, and lost everything that might have given them a decent life in their last years. The experience of being held hostage by the AIM occupiers, then seeing all they owned go up in flames and finally seeing their remaining property seized by the bank, left them destitute and totally dependent on Medicaid and on their children at the time of their deaths.

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 playout of this historic tragedy is James Czywczynski who along with his Indian side-kick, may well become millionaires by the sale.

In the event that the other Sioux Tribes decline to accept Giago’s offer of joint ownership (which might well be the case because of the respect they should show for Oglala sovereignty), the Rapid City speculators will have their cake and eat it too, for they will become millionaires who by default become owners of the sacred grounds, which could then be developed into a tidy prairie profit center.

Charles E. Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was the 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 can be reached at Cchuktrim@aol.com.