Jim Kent: Selling the souls of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre victims

Lakota elder Marcella LeBeau stands beside the Wounded Knee Massacre Ghost Dance Shirt she helped return to the Lakota from Scotland’s Kelvingrove Museum in 1999. She questioned the sale of guns that were taken from the site of the 1890 massacre in South Dakota. Photo courtesy Gerri LeBeau

Selling The Souls Of The Wounded Knee Victims
By Jim Kent
Lakota Country Times Columnist

“The Lakota will never forget Wounded Knee."

It’s a phrase I’ve heard pass from the mouths of tribal elders, tribal historians, Native American authors, tribal leaders, tribal educators and tribal youth. Spoken by the Lakota, of course – but by those of other Native American nations, as well.

In the history of “Westward Expansion for Manifest Destiny” it is the culminating moment when the avarice of the dominant society is seen at its most ruthless.

There were, sadly, other massacres: Sand Creek, Washita, Kabyai Creek. Yet Wounded Knee stands out the most. It remains in the memories of the Lakota and other tribal people. Not because it was the “worst” (any mass killing of men, women and children is a horrific act and beyond quantifying), but because it marked the unofficial end of “The West”. The terminus of the Native American culture as they and their ancestors had known it for countless generations.

It was the last deaths in a genocide that had decimated millions of Indigenous people from coast-to-coast and its bullets, its cannon fire, its cries, screams and whimperings can be heard still.

Visit that place on a cold winter morning at dawn, or on a warm summer evening as the sun’s last rays disappear beyond the Black Hills; the tragedy is still there. The grief is almost palpable.

It’s because of this – and all these reasons – that the recent sale of 3 rifles taken from the Wounded Knee Massacre site by a non-Native woman has caused such concern among the Lakota.

Jim Kent. Photo from Facebook

As Marcella LeBeau, a respected elder from the Cheyenne River Reservation noted - the hurt from Wounded Knee lingers within her people in what she describes as “a pervasive sadness”.

Marcella wondered how anyone could even contemplate taking money for, making money from symbols of such a tragedy, items that were bathed in blood and carry with them the history of such carnage. Pieces of their souls.

I wonder as well.

In fact, I wonder how a woman who was said to have had many friends among the Lakota could take her teenage son to that place – referred to as the “battlefield” by Heritage Auctions, which sold the items – in order to retrieve those weapons.

I’ve never been to a “battlefield" or a massacre site, but it doesn’t take much of an imagination to understand what it must have been like. The emotional trauma the experience is said to have had on the teenager by his descendants shouldn’t be a surprise.

The man who sold the rifles - for $137,000 – claims that thoughts of what his “teenaged” ancestor suffered afterwards have caused he, himself, trauma. And, yet, he chose to take these items stolen from people who had been massacred and put them on the open market for sale to the highest bidder rather than attempt to find some inner peace for himself and perhaps for the spirit of his, obviously, tormented ancestor by repatriating them to the families of those they were taken from.

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How ironic. It was the zest for capitalism – via Manifest Destiny – that led to the massacre at Wounded Knee and it was at one of the most ionic symbols of capitalism – the auction house – that the tragedy of what took place there was carried on by another generation with the sale of items removed from that bloodied site.

Ignorance on the part of Heritage Auctions? Apparently, as indicated by their wording in such descriptions as “A Wonderful Gun Picked Up On The Battlefield.

Still, they were only the messenger for the individual who owned the rifles which, along with 91 other “Native American items” in “The Rathbun Family Collection”, were sold for more than $340,000. Yet, I’m thinking that in spite of the trauma he said has existed in his family for years, Mr. Rathbun doesn’t actually understand the impact of his actions or the sensitive nature of what he possessed. How else can you explain also auctioning a photo of the Wounded Knee Massacre Site or the image of Native American remains on a tree scaffold?

Perhaps the best way to understand just how unacceptable having and then selling these items is can be best explained this way: imagine a young mother taking her teenaged son to the site of the Columbine shooting, removing items that had belonged to 3 of the students killed there, keeping them in her family for a few generations and then selling them to the highest bidder.

“In poor taste” doesn’t begin to describe it.

(Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on South Dakota Public Radio, National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at kentvfte@gwtc.net)

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Lakota Country Times: Guns from Wounded Knee sold at auction (7/14)
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Guns taken from site of 1890 Wounded Knee massacre up for sale (06/06)