The Wounded Knee Memorial and cemetery, shown here in a 2018 file photo, marks the site where more than 250 Lakota men, women and children were massacred by U.S. soldiers in 1890 in South Dakota. The memorial land was already owned by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, but the tribal council voted Sept. 7, 2022, to join with the Cheyenne River Sioux to buy the remaining 40-acre parcel of the historic landmark from a non-Native owner. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)
Mary Annette Pember
It was the last resolution of the day but it was a stunner.
The Oglala Sioux tribal council voted in an historic decision Sept. 7 to purchase 40 acres of Wounded Knee land from Jeanette Czywczynski for $500,000 – a move that now puts the entire Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark site under ownership of the Oglala Sioux.
Sold for far less than the $3.9 million price demanded by her now-deceased husband, James Czywczynski, the land now includes a covenant to preserve it as a sacred site and memorial without commercial development.
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The vote passed with 15 members voting yes, three voting no and one member not voting. Those opposing the resolution expressed concern over allowing the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe 49 percent ownership of the land.
“Our tribes have come together through war and times of need. It’s not just our relatives buried there (on Wounded Knee land),” said council member Julian Spotted Bear, who supported the purchase.
According to the resolution, the Oglala Sioux tribe will pay $255,000 and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe will pay $245,000 for the site, and agree to petition the U.S. Department of the Interior to take the land into trust on behalf of both tribes. The title to the land will be held in the name of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe made the decision to participate in the purchase about a week ago, according to Chairman Harold Frazier.
“Many of those massacred at Wounded Knee were from the Minneconjou band on Cheyenne River,” Frazier said.
“When I heard about it, I said, ‘We have to buy it; let’s buy it. That’s our ancestors’ resting place. We need to respect them,'” he said.
The agreement ends a decades-long dispute over land that is the site of the historic Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 in which hundreds of Lakota men, women and children were killed by U.S. soldiers of the 7th cavalry using machine guns in an attempt to suppress the Ghost Dance, a Lakota religious movement. Victims were buried in a mass grave in a nearby Catholic cemetery.
American Indian Movement leaders join in a solemn moment in 1973 just before the signing of a statement ending the bloody standoff between federal forces and the AIM members at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. (AP File Photo/Jim Mone)
The property, which includes a portion of the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark, has become a potent, painful reminder of brutal federal violence used to suppress Indigenous peoples.
Jeanette Czywczynski became sole owner of the property after her husband, James, died in 2019. James Czywczynski purchased the property in 1968.
The Czywczynski family operated a trading post and museum there until 1973, when American Indian Movement protesters occupied the site, destroying both the post and Czywczynski’s home.
The family moved away from the area and put the land up for sale, asking $3.9 million for the 40-acre parcel nearest the massacre site. The land, including an additional adjacent 40-acre plot, had been assessed at $14,000.
The issue of Wounded Knee ownership became a national symbol of a century of unscrupulous treatment of Native people by the U.S. government and non-Natives.
For a time, Czywczynski toyed with the idea of partnering with developers to build a motel and gas station near the site. He later offered the land to the Oglala Sioux tribe for sale but grew bitter and frustrated over negotiations.
Some tribal members wanted to develop the site for commercial purposes and some opposed such a plan, maintaining that it should be shielded from development and maintained as a sacred site.
In 2013, film star Johnny Depp announced a plan to buy the property and donate it to the Oglala Sioux tribe. Depp, who played the role of Tonto in a remake of the film, “The Lone Ranger,” was criticized for trying to capitalize on the film and for his misappropriation of Native culture. He was also criticized for making unsubstantiated claims of having Native ancestry. Depp did not follow through on the purchase.
In 2016, Lakota journalist Tim Giago, founder of Indian Country Today, announced plans to purchase the Wounded Knee land for $3.9 million and went to work fundraising the purchase price.
Giago, who grew up in the town of Wounded Knee, said he wanted to put the land into trust for the entire Sioux Nation. Giago’s plans, however, fell through. He died in July 2022 at age 88.
The Oglala Sioux tribe already owned the land containing the Wounded Knee cemetery and mass grave of the 1890 massacre victims. Red Cloud Indian School recently returned about one acre of land to the tribe where Sacred Heart Church once stood.
Leaders from the Oglala Sioux tribe did not respond to ICT’s request for comment. ICT was unable to reach Jeannette Czywczynski.
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Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for ICT.