“They’re Alive.”: Wounded Knee and the Politics of Land Struggles

Recently, I’ve been focusing a lot of thought towards understanding private property and how property logics is one of the primary means for dispossession of Native title and land. It is inherent in U.S. federal Indian law, that is what has been named the Framework of Dominance and the Doctrine of Discovery. As embedded and landed property owners, the paternal Founding Fathers (all the white male Thomases, Georges, and Johns) inherited a foundational doctrine of entitlement and privilege based on the notion of property owning white males on stolen Indian land. Foundations, especially national foundations, are inherently violent processes. The primitive accumulation of land as it understood through the market economy of land exchange through the “discovery” and exertion of dominance over Native people is justified by the U.S. Constitution and legal law.

When has any legal mechanism, legislative or juridical, ruled that the conquest and exploitation of the Western hemisphere by European nations was/is unjustified? When and where have entire Native National territories been returned because colonizing nations and people felt guilty for their actions and decided they are morally wrong?

After mulling over these questions, the unthinkable happened. First, a portion of He Sapa (the Black Hills) went up for private auction by a multi-generation settler family in Pe Sla (renamed by the colonizing family as Reynold’s Prairie). Then, just several days ago the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre went up for sale. After reading an article in the Native Sun News about the private sale, I was almost too angry and upset to put anything into words. But I wrote this:

“Yesterday (6 February 2013), Native Sun News announced that the Wounded Knee site on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is up for private sale at $3.9 million. Wounded Knee is the site where over 300 Lakota men, women, and children of Hehaka Gleska (pejoratively named ‘Big Foot’ by whites because the shoes he was rationed were too small for his feet) band of Mincounjou were massacred at the hands of Custer’s former regiment—the Seventh Cavalry. Eighteen Medals of Honor—the United State’s highest military honor—were awarded to cavalrymen who participated in this massacre of mostly unarmed Mnicounjou. It was also the largest per capita awarding of the Medals of Honor for any conflict or war in U.S. history. Wounded Knee was also the site for the 73-day standoff between the American Indian Movement and the U.S. Marshalls and FBI. For the Oyate, the Wounded Knee Massacre and the AIM occupation represent dark, violent periods in our national history, as well as a site of refusal and rejection of wasicu occupation. It is a site that is considered by many as hallowed ground. But, more importantly, it is an historic testament to how the U.S. settler colonial regime refuses forgiveness and pardon for the Oyate’s centuries of resistance to colonial occupation.

James A. Czywcynski, the current white owner of the 40 acre site, put the land up for auction and stated, ‘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.’ In a statement for the reasons why he put a $3.9 million price tag on the site, Czywcynski reasoned, ‘I was never repaid for the property losses I had as a result of what happened there in 1973 [during the AIM occupation]. 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.’[1] These statements alone are testament to how continued struggles over land are also struggles over life. For the U.S. settler state, as clearly expressed by Czywcynski, the debt of Native life and land is still being paid as damages for merely surviving and continuing to live with the violences of colonial property regimes. This debt is not just a land-based economy, but an economy of suffering and an economy of mourning that is continually commodified as marketable and exploitable.” (Excerpted from a conference paper I presented 7 February 2013 at the AISA 14th Annual Conference)

After delivering this paper at the AISA conference, something strange happened. I met my Grandpa Frank Estes for the first time in Tempe, AZ. During our discussion, he continually referred to relatives as related through the land, “Makoce,” he would add–both through blood and kinship with the land. After visiting for several hours, we wound up in his living room where there was a photo of Hehaka Gleska’s band of Mniconjou before the Wounded Knee Massacre. The caption read something like, “Big Foot’s band. After the Grass Dance. Before the 29 December 1890 Wounded Knee Incident. Last known photograph.” My Grandpa asked me if I had seen the photograph before. I said, yes I had. He said, “You know, they’re alive. They’re alive.” Not once did he acknowledge the fate of our people at Wounded Knee. After that, he asked me, without knowing about the paper I presented about the Black Hills Land Claim and the Wounded Knee Site going up for auction, “Do you write about the Black Hills Land Claim? What do you know about it?” It is then our conversation ended because we were on our way out to catch a flight back to Albuquerque, NM. I’ve been dwelling on his words, since I’ve returned back home.

Big Foot's Band of Mnicounjou

“We’re related through the land… You know, they’re alive. They’re alive.”

See also: http://www.argusleader.com/article/20130210/NEWS/302100019/Sacred-ground-sale-Wounded-Knee


[1] Brandon Ecoffey, “Wounded Knee Site put up for Sale at $3.9M,” Native Sun News, 6 February 2013: http://www.indianz.com/News/2013/008419.asp

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