South Dakota tribe faces ultimatum on sale of massacre site
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- A small patch of prairie sits largely unnoticed off a desolate road in southwestern South Dakota, tucked amid gently rolling hills and surrounded by dilapidated structures and hundreds of gravesites -- many belonging to Native Americans massacred more than a century earlier.
The assessed value of the property: less than $14,000. The seller's asking price: $4.9 million.
Tribal members say the man who owns a piece of the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is trying to profit from their suffering. It was there, on Dec. 29, 1890, that 300 Native American men, women and children were killed by the 7th Cavalry in the final battle of the American Indian Wars.
James Czywczynski, whose family has owned the property since 1968, is trying to sell the 40-acre fraction of the historic landmark and another 40-acre parcel for $4.9 million. He had given the Oglala Sioux Tribe until Wednesday to agree to the price, after which he said he'd open it up to outside investors.
Oglala Sioux tribal president Bryan Brewer told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the tribe does not have the money to buy the land and that, even if it did, tribal members shouldn't have to buy back something that is theirs.
"We are hoping no one will buy this land. And I'd like to tell investors that if someone thinks they can go down there and commercialize this, it will never happen. We will not allow it," he said.
Czywczynski did not return repeated calls from The Associated Press by Wednesday evening to see whether outside investors are now able to bid for the land. Earlier this month he told the AP he had three offers from West Coast-based investment groups interested in buying the land for the original asking price.
The ultimatum has caused anger among many tribal members and descendants of the massacre victims.
"I know we are at the 11th hour, but selling this massacre site and using the victims as a selling pitch is, for lack of a better word, it's grotesque," said Nathan Blindman, 56, whose grandfather was 10 when he survived the massacre. "To use the murdered children, the murdered teenagers, the unborn, women screaming and running for their lives, using that as a selling pitch ... that has got to be the most barbaric thing ever to use as a selling pitch."
Czywczynski acknowledges the historical significance adds value to each parcel of land, which have each been appraised at less than $7,000 apiece, according to records reviewed by the AP.
Besides its proximity to the burial grounds, the land includes the site of a former trading post burned down during the 1973 Wounded Knee uprising, in which hundreds of American Indian Movement protesters occupied the town built at the massacre site. The 71-day standoff that left two tribal members dead and a federal agent seriously wounded is credited with raising awareness about Native American struggles and giving rise to a wider protest movement that lasted the rest of the decade.
The land sits on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, but many of the descendants of the massacre victims and survivors are members of several different Lakota tribes, said Joseph Brings Plenty, a former chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and a traditional chief.
Brings Plenty said the tribes are not in a position to pay millions of dollars for the land. Although tribal members are not opposed to development that would preserve, beautify or better educate the public about the land and its history, they are opposed to commercialization, he said.
"You don't go and dance on grandma and grandpa's grave to turn a hefty dollar sign," he said.
Tribal members and descendants have reached out to President Barack Obama to make the site a National Monument, which would better guard it against development and commercialization, Brings Plenty said.
But even if an outside investor buys the land with intent to develop, there will be obstacles, said Craig Dillon, an Oglala Sioux Tribal Council member. The tribe could pass new laws preventing the buyer from actually building at the site.
"Whoever buys that is still going to have to deal with the tribe," Dillon said. "Access is going to be an issue. Development is going to be an issue. I'm not threatening anybody, but my tone is be aware you have to deal with the tribe if you purchase it."
There are nearly 2,500 national historic landmarks across the country, with the vast majority of them owned by private landowners, said Don Stevens, chief of the History and National Register Program in the Midwest Region for the National Park Service.
"We advocate for preservation and we always express concern about potential harm for their care," Stevens said, adding that the NPS does not have any legal authority.
Still, a site can lose its designation if it does not retain its physical integrity, he said. One example is Soldier Field in Chicago, which lost the designation when it was remodeled a decade ago because it changed its physical character.
As for the Wounded Knee site, Stevens said any development could potentially affect the Historic Landmark designation.
"Certainly you would hear a hue and cry about that type of thing," he said. "And certainly if we saw something going up, we'd express our concern, even if we don't have a legal jurisdiction to intercede, we'd express our concern."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.