By Ernestine Chasing Hawk
The historic site of Wounded Knee is cold and quiet on this day that marks the 125th Anniversary of the massacre that happened on December 29, 1890.
Fresh fallen snow covers the grounds of the burial site and the cold cement of the floor that once was home to the Wounded Knee Trading Post. A lone stone chimney is all that remains of the store that was once busy with Lakota customers shopping, selling goods and laughing at the jokes told in the Lakota language by one of the store clerks, Tim Giago Sr.
As a child Tim Jr. rode on the back of Joan Gildersleeve's tricycle on the sidewalks that ran down the street in front of the Trading Post. His father worked as a butcher and sales clerk in the store then owned by Clive and Agnes Gildersleeve. Joan was their only child. Agnes was an Ojibwe lady from Minnesota who married Clive and moved to Wounded Knee in the late 1920s and helped to build the Trading Post.
The Wounded Knee Trading Post housed a United States Post Office and the benches in front of the Post were always filled with Lakota elders enjoying the sun and visiting.
Many Lakota felt the pain of seeing it burned to the ground in 1973 after it was seized by members of the American Indian Movement. Clive and Agnes, an elderly couple by then, were tied to chairs by the occupiers. They were held captive until an agreement was finally made to release them.
Visitors from around the world used to visit the Trading Post and then they would go up the hill that is on tribal land to visit the gravesite where a trench was dug by soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry and the bodies of the Lakota men, women and children that were slaughtered on that day tossed into the trench without a loved one to say a prayer.
After seeing the land lie empty for more than 42 years, former newspaper publisher Tim Giago who once lived in the village decided to approach James Czywczynski, the man who bought the 40 acres of land and the Wounded Knee Trading Post, about buying the land.
Czywczynski is now 79 years old and has been advertising selling the land, but with little success. Giago was worried about what would happen to the land if someone bought it and wanted to use it strictly for financial reasons. He decided to form a non-profit corporation and see if he could raise the money to purchase the land. He said, "I want to put the land into trust for all 9 tribes of the Great Sioux Nation and let them form a board that will decide how to use the land, if at all. But the land would be theirs and once again belong to the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota people.
Giago said that it his vision to see a Native American Holocaust Museum built on the site, a museum that would tell the history of the Sioux people and the museum could set aside space for other tribes that had suffered similar massacres like Sand Creek, Bear Creek and Washita. "This would give all of America and visitors from countries from around the world to learn about the true history of the American Indians."
Giago said he would like to see a huge trade pavilion built next to the museum where the artists and craftsman from all around Indian country set up booths to sell their works. "It would be a pavilion that is warm in the winter and cool in the summer and the artists and craftsmen and women can display their works for the thousands of tourists that will undoubtedly visit the site."
There has never been an accurate count of the Lakota people who died at Wounded Knee and depending on the books one reads, the count varies. But most Lakota believe that Big Foot had nearly 350 men, women and children with him on that terrible day in 1890 and that only about 50 remained alive after the massacre.
The bodies of the dead and dying were spread out for miles along the valley and the Wounded Knee Creek where the soldiers chased down the old men, the women and the children and shot them to death. It is a day the Lakota people have not forgotten.
Many Lakota now in their early 80s had relatives living in and around Wounded Knee. They heard to stories of what happened on that day firsthand. Giago's grandmother Sophie was working at Holy Rosary Mission, just up the road from Wounded Knee on that day and she recalled seeing the soldiers ride on to the Mission grounds searching for stragglers.
"I had been in the newspaper business for 35 years and we always made it an annual event to write about Wounded Knee every December 29th. We did not want that tragedy to ever be forgotten. A Dakota man named Sydney Byrd lived near Wounded Knee as a boy. He is now 94 years old and still remembers the things he heard when he was a boy. He often wrote about his memories of those conversations he heard many years ago for our newspaper."
Giago believes that Wounded Knee belongs to the tribes and the people. "What they decide to do with it will be up to them, but if they decide to follow the suggestions I made I will continue to help raise funds for them to build something that will be a place of education for visitors, but most of all a place where school children can come an learn the true history of the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota people."
"The tragedies that happened to the indigenous people from South America, Central America, Canada and the United States have been buried for too many years. If the Jews can build a holocaust museum to remind the world of what happened to them at the hands of Adolph Hitler, the Indian people have the right to do the very same thing here," Giago said.
(Ernestine Chasing Hawk can be reached at email@example.com)
(Donations can be sent to National Historic Site of Wounded Knee, Inc., 2650 Jackson Blvd., Suite 12, Rapid City, S.D. 57702)