One hundred and twenty-five years after hundreds of men, women, and children were executed at Wounded Knee, a former journalist and member of the Lakota tribe is getting ready to buy the adjacent land, with the intention of turning it into a Native American holocaust museum.
The massacre at Wounded Knee was the culmination of building tension between the Sioux Nation and white government officials. In 1890, Lakota Sioux, whose land was stripped away over time, participated in Ghost Dances to restore the lives they led before white settlers took over. But when a government official alerted Washington about the dances, the U.S. army was sent to quell the tribe. In the end, an estimated 300 people were killed.
The historic land currently belongs to non-native James Czywczynski. But Tim Giago, a member of the Lakota Sioux, recently signed an agreement to purchase it for $3.9 million.
Born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Wounded Knee, Giago wants the land to be reclaimed by the Sioux Nation. To that effect, on the 125th anniversary of the massacre, Giago announced his intentions to turn the land into a trust for the nine Sioux tribes. He also discussed plans to open a holocaust museum to honor native peoples who were slaughtered over time, including those massacred on his homeland.
The land has not offiially been bought, but people have already expressed their interest in Giago’s plan. Roughly one month ago, the 81-year-old founded the National Historic Site of Wounded Knee Inc., to collect donations for the final purchase.
When the land is officially in his possession, Giago believes a museum could be educational and economically beneficial for Rapid City, where 16 percent of the general population lives below the poverty line. Economic hardship is an even graver reality for Native Americans there, with 51 percent living in poverty. The Pine Ridge reservation has an unemployment rate of 70 percent.
“People in Germany, France and Italy probably know more about Indian country than people living here in America. Can you imagine a really beautiful Holocaust Museum and a big trade pavilion for Indian artisans and crafts people? They could set up booths year-round and sell their arts and crafts to the tourists,” he told Indian Country Today. “We would have tourists come from all over the world and stay in Rapid City, go to the restaurants and hotels, take buses to Wounded Knee. It would create over 200 jobs for the people down there. It would be also a boost financially to Rapid City, South Dakota.”
Giago is not alone in his attempt to reclaim ownership of native lands. Tribes across the country are in the process of procuring land that was divided over generations and undermined their integrity.
Under the Dawes Act of 1887, when a landowner died, ownership was fractioned and transferred to his or her heirs. But the physical land was not actually divided accordingly, so all of the heirs laid claims to the same territory. Over time, single parcels of land were owned by thousands of people, which made ownership of cultural or sacred sites heavily disputed and hard to access.
To remedy the problem, the Department of the Interior launched a massive land buy-back program for tribes across the country, in 2009. Over the span of 10 years, the department will use $1.9 billion to purchase some of the fractioned land from willing sellers, consolidate it, and turn it into tribal trusts. The overarching goal is to restore tribal sovereignty — meaning sites like Wounded Knee will be given back to natives and used at their discretion.