Wounded Knee descendants group plans ceremony to burn returned artifacts

The Woods Memorial Library in Barre, Massachusetts, repatriated over 150 items to a group of Wounded Knee Massacre descendants. (Photo courtesy of Cedric Broken Nose)

The Woods Memorial Library in Barre, Massachusetts, repatriated over 150 items to a group of Wounded Knee Massacre descendants. (Photo courtesy of Cedric Broken Nose)

This story was originally co-published by the Rapid City Journal and ICT, through a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the South Dakota area.

Last November, more than 150 items stolen from mass graves of Wounded Knee massacre victims were returned to a group of descendants, the Si’Tanka Ta’ Oyate O’mniceye (Descendants of the Si’ Tanka Nation). Now, a year later, the group plans to burn the artifacts to mark the end of the one-year traditional bereavement period called wasigla.

In 1890, more than 300 Lakota men, women and children were killed by the United States military. The military had been sent to Pine Ridge to stop a potential “Indian uprising.” Instead, they encountered a band of Mniconju Lakota led by Chief Spotted Elk (nicknamed Big Foot by the military). The military misinterpreted the group’s ghost dance songs as an intent to attack and opened fire on the band. Now 133 years later, the descendants of those who survived the massacre are working to preserve the memory of what happened that day.

A majority of the items are clothing, mostly moccasins and ghost dance shirts. All of the clothes had been removed from the victims of the massacre by grave robbers. Some moccasins have blood splatters on them. The rest are peace pipes, dolls, two tomahawks, a bow and arrows and a few beaded lizard and turtle amulets/pouches containing umbilical cords.

Mixed in amongst the artifacts are items from other tribes, Ojibwe moccasins, Dakota and Cheyenne beadwork and other items from other tribes were scattered in. Those items will also be burned.

All repatriated items came from the Woods Memorial Library’s Founders Museum Collection in Barre, Massachusetts. The museum qualifies as a private collection.

The Founders Museum did not respond to a request for comment. It is unclear if the museum’s entire “Native American Collection” was given to the Wounded Knee descendants or just the Wounded Knee-related items.

Out of fear for the items being stolen in the future and a desire to honor Lakota traditions, the group is choosing to burn all artifacts except for the peace pipes, on the 133rd anniversary of the massacre.

The group’s leader Cedric Broken Nose, Oglala Lakota and a descendant of Chief Spotted Elk, said burying them wouldn’t successfully return the items to the ancestors, rather the smoke created from the fire would carry the items up. The group has been advised by a medicine man as to what they should do with the artifacts.

“We don’t want these items to end up in a museum, they don’t belong in there,” Broken Nose said. “If we were to bury them the grave robbers would steal them, that’s how they ended up in a museum in the first place.”

A sunrise silhouette of the entrance to the Wounded Knee Massacre memorial in South Dakota. (Getty Images)
A sunrise silhouette of the entrance to the Wounded Knee Massacre memorial in South Dakota. (Getty Images)

Broken Nose said all groups that had been gathering seasonally since the initial repatriation had all agreed to burn the items by October 2023.

“Every year the ancestors come back for their items, but since they can’t take the items they take relatives,” Broken Nose said. “One hundred and thirty-three years later we need to give those items back to them. They’re trying to come back for the items but they can’t, so they take a spirit, they take a life, that’s how powerful they are.”

The group has been working with Oglala Sioux Tribe President Frank Star Comes Out on how to properly handle the objects and ceremony.

“These items don’t belong to us, they belong to the ancestors,” Broken Nose said.

Despite the group’s plans, some Wounded Knee survivor descendants claim they were left out of the process. The group said there are more than 500 descendants of Wounded Knee survivor James Pipe on Head alone, the grandson of Chief Spotted Elk.

Broken Nose said just in Oglala, South Dakota over 30 families descend from Spotted Elk. This specific group is comprised of descendants who have met since 1980.

Calvin Spotted Elk, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said he feels the descendants have not been properly included in the decision-making process, especially those who live out of state. Spotted Elk lives in California.

“What really matters is that one family is making the decisions,” he said. “It is not our way for one family to make the decisions.”

Spotted Elk said he feels burying the items is more in line with Lakota tradition.

A memorial at the Wounded Knee Massacre site on the Pine Ridge Reservation. (Seth Tupper/SD Searchlight)
A memorial at the Wounded Knee Massacre site on the Pine Ridge Reservation. (Seth Tupper/SD Searchlight)

Broken Nose said out of respect for maintaining good intentions around the items during the mourning period, the group will not be commenting on the claims made by Spotted Elk.

Spotted Elk also alleged the group has not followed guidelines set out by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Under the 1990 legislation, museums or other institutions that accept federal funding must compile an inventory of Indigenous cultural items and initiate repatriation of the collections and remains to tribes or family members.

While the act does set guidelines for the repatriation of Native American items, including remains and funerary objects, it does have its limitations. It only applies to museums or other institutions that accept federal funding, including the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act). Private collections are not subject to the federal legislation.

In a typical NAGPRA-guided repatriation, items would be returned to direct descendants or the tribe from which the items came.

A press release from the Founders Museum dated April 2022 stated the items were repatriated in “the Spirit of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act,” not under NAGPRA. In January 2022 the museum began to take steps to repatriate the library’s Native American collection.

In the meantime, the survivors’ descendants group has discussed sending the items to the Oglala Lakota College, Red Cloud Museum and Crazy Horse Memorial. Currently, the items are on a loan to the college. The Crazy Horse Memorial is too far from the reservation and community members couldn’t easily access items to pray, Broken Nose said.

The group said the Red Cloud Museum doesn’t have an adequate temperature-controlled climate the items require but will reconsider once the Heritage Museum is constructed.

For now, the peace pipes will remain at Oglala Lakota College, as will the other items until they’re burned.

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Amelia Schafer, Rapid City Journal/ICT
Amelia Schafer, Rapid City Journal/ICT

Amelia Schafer covers Indigenous communities in the South Dakota area as part of a partnership between the Rapid City Journal and ICT, an independent, nonprofit news enterprise that covers Indigenous peoples.

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