[As always when writing about Native affairs, I welcome comment and correction from my Native readers. You know your own business and your own history better than I do.]
Noted horror and science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft once said, “From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent.” Such is the sad case at Wounded Knee in recent days. From the Native Sun News Network:
Wounded Knee, the site of one of the most horrific and tragic events in all of American history, is being offered up for sale by its owner.
The family of James A. Czywczynski, owners of two 40 acre sites of land where the slaughter of approximately 300 Lakota men, women, and children took place on Dec 29, 1890 has agreed to sell the land for $3.9 million. “It is time for our family to sell the land. We would really like to see the land returned to the Lakota people and that is why I am giving them an opportunity to purchase the land before I open it up to others for sale,” said Czywczynski. “I could offer it up for public auction like the Runnels did with Pe’ Sla, but I would prefer that the Lakota people be the ones to purchase it,” he added.
How nice that Czywczynski wants to sell back the site of one of the worst mass killings in American history returned to the people whose blood was spilled there. And he’s only charging them between 100-200 times market value for it:
Aside from its historical significance, the land is mostly grassland, and that typically sells for far less than $48,750 an acre in Shannon County. That’s how much the tribe would pay per acre if officials agreed to Czywczynski’s price.
Susie Hayes is the Fall River County director of equalization, and her county performs the administrative work for Shannon County. While there aren’t many land sales in Shannon County, Hayes said that recently “we just had a big land sale over there in the southwest corner of the county.”
A ranch consisting of 3,238 acres of grassland and 500 acres of cropland went for $2.8 million. “That seems to be a fairly good sale, within the ballpark,” she said.
Hayes uses an eight-year Olympic average of land values in South Dakota where the high and low numbers are thrown out. It is prepared by the state Department of Revenue and it helps her estimate land worth. In Shannon County this year, according to the state, “top dollar for cropland is $466 an acre. Top dollar for grassland is $257 an acre,” she said.
How do you justify selling land that’s realistically worth $260 per acre for almost 200 times that? Well, as it turns out, Czywczynski owned the land and buildings that were occupied by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1973 in their 73-day-long standoff with federal marshals. And he’s including property damages in his price tag for the site of two of the most important events in Lakota and Native American history:
“I was never repaid for the property losses I had as a result of what happened there in 1973,” he said. “The price that I have placed on the land is an attempt for me to reclaim my losses, and an attempt to get fair market value for the land,” he added.
How can you say that? How can a person make a statement like that and not have a molten chunk of irony plummet from the sky and smite them where they stand?!
You were never repaid for your property losses?
Were the Lakota ever repaid for their property losses when the U.S. government stole the Black Hills from them? Oh sure, there was that court case in 1980, United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, that awarded the Lakota $106 million in damages. But that’s a paltry offer when you consider that Homestake Gold Mine alone removed a full 40 million ounces of gold in its lifetime, a paltry offer the Lakota rightfully declined.
Were they repaid for the three hundred Hunkpapa and Minneconjou who were murdered at Wounded Knee on that wintery day in 1890?
For the systematic genocide of first their people in the Indian Wars of the 19th century and later in policies of forced sterilization and boarding schools, homestead allotments and withering poverty?
And you ask them to shell out $4 million to buy back the land they were robbed of in the first place, the land they baptized with their blood and their tears?
“I could sell the property to someone from outside the tribe but I really do not want to do that,” said Czywczynski. “This is a real chance for the tribe to take advantage of an opportunity to bring more money and people to the reservation. It could be done in a respectful way for those who passed there,” he added.
Because Mr. Czywczynski knows that there is no world in which the Lakota would ever want to have that land developed by somebody else. They’re not even sure they want to build a memorial museum on that land, even though it might serve as a tourism boon, let alone letting some white landowner do so. And Mr. Czywczynski is using that leverage to gouge them for almost 200 times the land’s market value.
Last year, after the historic purchase of Pe’Sla in the Black Hills – the purchase of land that, according to treaty law and to any sense of justice, still belongs to the Lakota people – I wrote:
The Lakota didn’t traditionally have a concept of private land ownership. But they certainly have a sense of the sacredness of land. That’s why they’ve been at the forefront of campaigns to protect the Black Hill’s natural resources and precious environment for decades. The question is, then: is sacred land worth more than economic development? Was buying Pe’Sla a mistake?
That’s where irony reenters the picture, as it so often does in the twisting story of Lakota-Anglo relations. The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, which handed out individual parcels of land to tribes culturally accustomed to communal possession of land, allowed sale of prime reservation real estate to whites, and left the Lakota structurally impoverished on some of the most barren farmland in the region.
I see this as the tragedy of the whole affair: the Lakota have been placed in a position where they must choose between spending money on community uplift (because White people did keep their promises) and protecting sacred land from commercial development (because White people didn’t keep their promises).
I don’t know that I can say it any better now. It would be funny if it weren’t so infuriating.