Wounded Knee descendants decide not to burn 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.

RAPID CITY — More than 150 recently repatriated artifacts from the Wounded Knee Massacre were set to be burned. Instead, tribal leaders from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and later the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe asked to halt the ceremony.

On Dec. 29, instead of burning the artifacts, descendants of Wounded Knee Massacre survivors gathered to pray, sing and remember the over 300 Lakota men, women and children killed by the United States military.

The issue stems from disagreements over what to do with items repatriated from the Woods Memorial Library’s Founders Museum Collection in Barre, Massachusetts. While one group of descendants planned to burn artifacts, others requested more time to consider alternatives.

Wounded Knee descendants group plans ceremony to burn returned artifacts

In November 2022, the Woods Memorial Library’s Founders Museum gave items back to a group of descendants of Wounded Knee survivors. The group, Si’Tanka Ta’ Oyate O’mniceye (Descendants of the Si’ Tanka (Big Foot) Nation), is comprised of Mniconju and Hunkpapa Lakota survivor descendants most of whom live in the Oglala area on Pine Ridge.

Following the massacre, several survivors chose to settle in the Oglala area, said the group’s historian Michael He Crow, Mniconju Lakota. He Crow’s own family settled in the Oglala area after the massacre.

The repatriated artifacts had been taken from the mass graves of Wounded Knee Massacre victims killed in 1890. The military had been sent to Pine Ridge to stop a potential “Indian uprising.” Instead, they encountered a band of mostly 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.

The items returned from the Founders Museum were stolen from the graves of Wounded Knee victims. Most of the items are clothing – moccasins and ghost dance shirts. Some moccasins have blood splatters on them. The rest of the items are several peace pipes, hand drums, a few dolls, two tomahawks, a bow with arrows and a few beaded lizard and turtle amulets/pouches containing umbilical cords.

Mixed in amongst the artifacts are items from other tribes – Ojibwe-style moccasins, Dakota and Cheyenne beadwork and other items.

The Founders Museum is a private collection of items. As such it is exempt from provisions from the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The repatriation did not have to follow federal guidelines. Instead, it was “inspired by NAGPRA,” according to the museum’s initial press release. As such, the items were given back to a group of the museum’s choice.

An alternative proposal for the Wounded Knee medal problem

The Founders Museum did not respond to requests for comment about the repatriation process.

Since the artifacts were returned, the group has hosted public meetings once a month, sometimes twice a month, for community members. The meetings were meant to be a way for survivor descendants to voice their opinions, He Crow said.

“The Cheyenne River tribe supported what we planned to do up until October of this year (2023),” He Crow said.

The tribe published a statement on the eve of the Wounded Knee ceremony voicing its opposition to burning the artifacts.

“The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and many Wounded Knee descendants have not seen the artifacts that were repatriated by the Barre Museum,” a press release from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said. “Accordingly, we ask that any proposal to burn the artifacts be halted and we propose a joint meeting between the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and our Wounded Knee survivor associations be held in the coming days so that we can meet and discuss the artifacts and our plans concerning the artifacts.”

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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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