Selling off Wounded Knee

May 15, 2013

The story of how Wounded Knee became private property--which is now for sale--is the story of Native dispossession across the U.S., explains Brian Ward.

THE SITE of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890--land that is considered sacred by the Lakota tribe--is up for sale. A white man named James Czywczynski, who privately owns the land, listed it for sale a couple weeks ago with a price tag of $4.9 million.

Czywczynski has made it clear that he will not gift the piece of land to the Oglala Lakota and will entertain offers from non-Natives--though he says that he would like the Oglala Lakota to purchase it.

What? Czywczynski wants Native residents of one of the poorest areas in the country to purchase sacred land that they are entitled to? In 2010, Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation had the lowest per capita income in the country, with unemployment estimated at 70 percent.

There is no doubt that this land is considered sacred not only by the Lakota, but also by American Indians around the country. Then why is it for sale? Aren't American Indian reservations sovereign? How could it be that reservation land is privately owned?

These are very valid questions. The simple answer is that this piece of land is not actually owned by the tribe, and the more complicated answer is based on history and on the passage of the Dawes Act (General Allotment Act) of 1887.

The burial ground at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre
The burial ground at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre

In an interview with Indian Country Today, Czywczynski explained in his own words how he acquired the land in the first place:

The land was put up for sale in the 1930s as an allotment so the Native people could sell their land. The Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation was sold off, and there are many non-Indian ranchers, farmers, businessmen, cowboys and casinos that are owned and within the confines of that reservation.

Our property was bought in the 1930s by Woodrow Wilson, who signed the deed. Clive Gildersleeve's father bought the land and store in 1935, which included 40 acres of the national historical site of Wounded Knee. In 1968, I bought the property from the Gildersleeves, which included the Trading Post Museum, a home, four cabins and museum artifacts. The 40 acres we bought included the ravine and the area where the massacre took place in 1890.

THE WOUNDED Knee Massacre happened when the 7th Cavalry killed more than 300 Lakota men, women and children. It is often viewed at the last massacre of the Indian wars. It is also the site where the Lakota and the American Indian Movement set up an occupation in 1973, calling for Congress to reexamine treaties and remove Oglala Sioux tribal council President Dick Wilson.

Czywczynski used to live in Wounded Knee and owned the trading post. During the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, his house and trading post were occupied, and his house was later burned down. Czywczynski clearly has no sympathy with the American Indian Movement or any militants of that era, referring to those who took part in the occupation as "militant Indian thugs."

So what made it possible for Czywczynski to buy this land? Three key events serve as the essential backdrop for passage of the Dawes Act of 1887--first, the Industrial Revolution, which was kicking into high gear; second, the stock market crash of 1873, which marked the beginning of an economic depression that lasted until 1879; third, the defeat of General Custer and his Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. These three factors were leading to more and more pressure to "assimilate" the Western Indians and take their land for the continued expansion of American business.

The Dawes Act systematically reduced the land held by Natives in the West and attempted to integrate them into the system of American capitalism by undoing any notion of collective ownership and "giving" 160 acres to each head of household. This land, now owned and operated by individual families, was to be held in trust with the federal government for 25 years. The bill, however, exempted many tribes and seemed to be focused on those western tribes "causing trouble," such as the Lakota and the Cheyenne.

Natives who took possession of their parcel of land and adopted the habits of "civilized" life, such as farming and living in family rather than tribal units, they were granted U.S. citizenship. One of the most important provisions was that the surplus land was made available for settlers, railroads, corporations and national parks.

All these players started to flood the area. Some were immigrants searching for a better life, though most were corporations looking for quick ways, such as gold mining, to cash in. In the East, signs were plastered everywhere announcing "Indian land for sale." The Dawes Act provided a legislative lever to confront Indian resistance to westward expansion, thus clearing the way for the capitalist pursuit of new markets and easy profits.

WHEN THE Dawes Act was passed in 1887, Indians held 138 million acres of land; by 1934, they held only 48 million acres, and nearly half of this land was arid or semiarid desert. In the process, 900,000 Natives were made landless.

Colorado Sen. Henry Teller, one of the most outspoken critics of the bill, said:

The real aim [of allotment] was to get at the Indian lands and open them up to settlement. The provisions for the apparent benefit of the Indians are but the pretext to get at his lands and occupy them...If this were done in the name of Greed, it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of infinitely worse.

After the 25-year ownership in trust by the government was over, many Natives sold off their land to non-Natives at bargain prices in order to afford the basic necessities of life. Though the bill tried to force many to become farmers, the bill did basically nothing to help create this.

The act was terminated under the terms of the Indian Reorganization Act, which was passed in 1934. Today, it requires an act of Congress to give any of this privately owned land back to tribes. Even if a private owner wants to give the land back, it often comes under the jurisdiction of the local, county or state government rather than the reservation. The land was thus incredibly easy to sell, but seemingly impossible for Native tribes to get back.

Some have even argued that the Dawes Act did more damage to natives than any battle or massacre because of its systemic drive to assimilate native peoples.

The planned sale of Wounded Knee illustrates the continuing impact of the Dawes Act, and though this type of sale happens all the time, the historical importance of Wounded Knee has brought new attention to the issue. Today, many reservation maps look like checkerboards, with some having more than half of their land privately owned.

The Oglala Lakota shouldn't have to pay a dime for Wounded Knee, and Czywczynski shouldn't be able to hold them hostage to make money off stolen land. It's time to demand that Congress reexamine the effects of the Dawes Act on the American Indian community and give that land back with full sovereignty.

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