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History to the highest bidder

Native American heritage going on the auction block in May

Wounded Knee Memorial Cemetary
Photo Provided by Hamner_Fotos / Wikimedia
Wounded Knee Memorial Cemetary

The indigenous peoples of this nation are in danger of losing yet another piece of their heritage. Wounded Knee, a site sacred to Native Americans, especially the Sioux, is two weeks away from being auctioned off to the highest bidder. The current owner of the land, 74-year-old James A. Czywczynski, has decided to sell.

Chief Joseph Brings Plenty reports in a New York Times op-ed that Czywczynski is asking $3.9 million for the property, a price he considers fair due to its historical significance. Plenty states that Czywczynski has been trying to strike a deal with the Oglala Sioux for over 30 years, but the two parties could never reach an agreement.

As Plenty points out, the Oglala Sioux are among the poorest tribes and cannot afford Czywczynski’s current asking price. He says that if the land does not sell by May 1, he will put it up for auction.

Czywczynski owns the land and has a legal right to sell it. However, the price he is asking significantly exceeds market value, and a moral obligation is in play. Land in South Dakota goes for roughly $20,000 per acre, according to current South Dakota Multiple Listing Service entries. Based on this figure, the 40 acre parcel that contains the Wounded Knee site is worth around $800,000. Czywczynski is asking nearly five times the going rate for land in the area.

Czywczynski’s rationale is the historical significance of the site. At Wounded Knee, over 150 Sioux were massacred by the U.S. Army’s Seventh Cavalry.

In the days before the massacre, Native Americans had peacefully allowed the troops to escort them for over five miles. At dawn, on the morning of the massacre, the Lakota woke and found themselves surrounded by troops with rapid fire Hotchkiss guns, demanding that they give up their weapons.

One of the Lakota, who was deaf, did not understand the orders and refused to give up his rifle. When two troops tried to subdue him his rifle went off, starting the massacre. The official death toll was 150; however, some estimates put the number closer to 300.

Czywczynski seems to feel this entitles him to a massive profit on the land. Deriving such a profit would be particularly insidious, considering the chain of events that led to Czywczynski’s ownership of the site.

Native Americans never presumed ownership of the land they lived on and were not averse to sharing it. Then the European settlers came, started fencing land off, claiming ownership of it and being hostile to the natives that crossed the fences. Then came the broken treaties, the reservations and the forced relocations.

Fast forward to modern times, and the entire nation is all fenced off and owned by somebody, in this case James A. Czywczynski.

Czywczynski should donate this land to the Oglala Sioux and secure for himself a place in history as someone who tried to right a historical wrong. If he cannot do that, then he should sell the land to the Sioux for market value.

Joseph Brings Plenty suggests that the federal government should step in, purchase the land and make a national monument of it. Megan Slack of the White House Blog reports that President Obama established five new national monuments on March 25. Why not this one?

Creation of a national monument is done by executive order of the president or by congress. The Antiquities Act of 1906 enabled the creation of national monuments, and since then only three presidents have abstained from creating them.

Establishing Wounded Knee as a national monument is a realistic option. Then it would be preserved, protected and maintained for future generations to learn about this significant historical event.

Putting the land up for auction and jeopardizing the future of what Czywczynski himself recognizes as a valuable piece of our nation’s history would be a tragic mistake. With every passing day, we become more disconnected from our history.

With each passing generation, we lose the people who saw the historical events of their era unfold. Places such as Wounded Knee become all we have to connect us to the lessons of the past.

We can read about these things in books, watch them in movies or hear the stories told by voices, generations removed from the events themselves, but nothing can connect us to our history like standing on the spot where it occurred.