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Native American News Roundup Jan. 15-21, 2023 

FILE - Marchers carry a large painting of jailed American Indian Leonard Peltier during a march for the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Mass, Nov. 22, 2001. United American Indians of New England held its first National Day of Mourning in 1970.

Here is a summary of some of the top Native American-related news stories this week:

Former FBI agent petitions White House to release Leonard Peltier

A retired FBI agent who was directly involved in the case against former American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier has appealed to President Joe Biden, arguing for Peltier's release.

As VOA reported in 2016, Peltier, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe of Lakota and Dakota descent, was convicted in the murders of two FBI agents during a 1975 standoff at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.

Peltier, 78 and in ill health, has spent 46 years in confinement and lost numerous appeals and petitions for parole.

"Retribution seems to have emerged as the primary if not sole reason for continuing what looks from the outside to have become an emotion-driven 'FBI Family' vendetta," former agent Coleen Rowley said in her letter to Biden, which was shared exclusively with London's Guardian newspaper.

Amnesty International and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention support ending his confinement.

But FBI director Christopher Wray opposes clemency for Peltier, calling him a "ruthless murderer" who shows no remorse for his crime.

Read more:

The Muscogee Nation Mound building in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the seat of the tribal government.
The Muscogee Nation Mound building in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the seat of the tribal government.

Muscogee tribal newspaper vs. Muscogee government: new documentary highlights their fight

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend is a documentary that chronicles one tribal newspaper's fight for press freedom.

As VOA reported previously, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma established in 2015 an independent media organization, Mvskoke Media (MM), and set up an independent editorial board to protect against interference from the tribal government.

Three years later, the tribal council repealed the law and placed the outlet under the tribe's executive branch.

"Bad Press," co-directed by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker, a Muscogee journalist and executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, and filmmaker Joe Peeler documents efforts by MM reporters to counter what they call "tyranny."

Read Salon's recent interview with Landsberry-Baker here:

To register for an online viewing January 24, click here:

FILE - Tara Sweeney, Inupiat from Anchorage, Alaska, is pictured April 17, 2002, in Washington, where she was then lobbying Congress in support of oil drilling in an Arctic refuge.
FILE - Tara Sweeney, Inupiat from Anchorage, Alaska, is pictured April 17, 2002, in Washington, where she was then lobbying Congress in support of oil drilling in an Arctic refuge.

Alaska Natives outraged over botched translation job

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has fired a California company it hired to produce and translate documents that would assist Yup'ik and Inupiaq peoples applying for emergency aid.

Instead of an accurate translation, however, they found complete nonsense: "Tomorrow he will go hunting very early, and will [bring] nothing," read one passage. "Your husband is a polar bear, skinny," read another.

As it turns out, the company pulled random words from English translations of field notes taken by a Russian linguist studying Yup'ik dialects in Siberia's Chukotka peninsula 70 years ago.

For Alaska Natives trying to rebuild after a devastating typhoon last September, it was a double insult and a painful reminder of the past.

Water rushes down Front Street, just a half block from the Bering Sea, in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.
Water rushes down Front Street, just a half block from the Bering Sea, in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

"When my mother was beaten for speaking her language in school … to then have the federal government distributing literature representing that it is an Alaska Native language, I can't even describe the emotion behind that sort of symbolism," said Tara Sweeney, Inupiaq, who served as an assistant secretary of Indian Affairs in the Interior Department during the previous administration, The Anchorage Daily News reported.

Read more:

Map of eastern Russian and Alaska with a light brown border depicting Beringia, where archaeologists believe ancient Americans crossed from Siberia into Alaska around 13,000 years ago. Courtesy, U.S. National Park Service.
Map of eastern Russian and Alaska with a light brown border depicting Beringia, where archaeologists believe ancient Americans crossed from Siberia into Alaska around 13,000 years ago. Courtesy, U.S. National Park Service.

Behring Strait land bridge wasn't a one-way street

The traditional understanding of the origins of most Native Americans is that 12,000-13,000 years ago, shrinking sea levels created a temporary land bridge linking Siberia and Alaska. This allowed small groups of people — the ancestors of modern Native Americans — to leave their homes behind forever and establish thriving populations across North America.

But a new study published in the journal Current Biology shows that humans coming from Siberia's Kamchatka Peninsula had a mixture of genetic backgrounds; some even had links to the Japanese archipelago.

Moreover, DNA sampling suggests that it wasn't a one-way trip — humans traveled back and forth between Alaska and Siberia for thousands of years, even after glaciers melted and the Bering land bridge was once again submerged.

Read more in the journal Science:

Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachussetts. Students have voted to change the name of the school paper, "The Sagamore," out of respect for Indigenous peoples.
Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachussetts. Students have voted to change the name of the school paper, "The Sagamore," out of respect for Indigenous peoples.

Student newspaper to give up Indigenous mascot

A student-run newspaper in a Massachusetts high school has announced that after several years of deliberation they will change the name of their newspaper. For 130 years, Brookline High School's student newspaper has been The Sagamore, derived from an Algonquian word for a tribal leader.

"Continuing to use the name actively disregards the meaning of the word and the history that surrounds it, thereby harming Indigenous communities," reads an editorial on the paper's website.

"Our newspaper aims to be a source of unbiased and relevant news for the school community," the editorial continues. "We hope to represent the community fairly and accurately. With these values in mind, a name like The Sagamore does not make sense. It does not symbolize who we are and it actively counteracts our goal to make all people feel heard and represented on the pages of our paper."

Students made the decision after consultations with the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, a cultural heritage group that is not recognized by the federal government or the state of Massachusetts.

Read more:

This week on "The Inside Story," VOA reporter Natasha Mozgovaya looks at the 150th anniversary celebration of Yellowstone National Park and what it means to Native American tribes with historic ties to the land.

See all News Updates of the Day

Native American News Roundup Jan. 22 - 28, 2023

Sunset over Pose Lake, a small lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness accessible only by foot.

Here is a summary of some Native American-related stories making headlines this week:

No mining in northern Minnesota forest for at least 2 decades

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed a new order this week that will protect more than 91,000 hectares in Minnesota's Superior National Forest from mineral leasing for 20 years "subject to valid existing rights."

Public Land Order No. 7917 will protect parts of the Rainy River watershed, including lands ceded to the Chippewa Bands of Native Americans in 1854. It also protects the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the site of a proposed copper-nickel mine.

Environmentalists say mining for minerals including copper, cobalt and nickel would produce tailings that can be dangerous sources of toxic chemicals that would threaten the Rainy River Watershed and the Boundary Waters.

In 2021, the U.S. Forest Service called for a full study of the potential impacts of the proposed copper-nickel mine. The company, Twin Metals, said it was "deeply disappointed" by the move and sued to reclaim mining leases in the area.

"The Department of the Interior takes seriously our obligations to steward public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans. Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy," Haaland said in a statement to the press. "With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best-available science and extensive public input."

Read more:

Honor Beauvais, 12, a Sicangu Lakota student, died last month as a blizzard battered the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota after an ambulance couldn't get to him in time. Cordier Beauvais via AP
Honor Beauvais, 12, a Sicangu Lakota student, died last month as a blizzard battered the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota after an ambulance couldn't get to him in time. Cordier Beauvais via AP

South Dakota tribes say state governor waited too long to help

The Sicangu Lakota of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota are grieving the loss of six tribe members who died during a multiday snowstorm in mid-December and complain that state officials didn't do enough.

Victims of the weather included an elder who froze to death in his home and a 12-year-old boy who died of a respiratory infection before an ambulance could reach him.

The tribe declared a state of emergency December 16 and appealed to the state for assistance. Governor Kristi Noem activated the National Guard on December 22 to help remove snow and deliver firewood.

In a State of the Tribes speech to state lawmakers January 12, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Chairman Peter Lengkeek criticized the state's emergency services as "slow to react." The governor's spokesman, Ian Fury, posted a rebuttal on Twitter: "It's a shame that Chairman Lengkeek chose to perpetuate a false narrative."

Read more:

An early 16th-century depiction of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Indigenous interpreter, La Malinche (far right), who gave birth to Cortés' son Martín in the early 1520s.
An early 16th-century depiction of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Indigenous interpreter, La Malinche (far right), who gave birth to Cortés' son Martín in the early 1520s.

British historian re-examines Age of Discovery

Tens of thousands of Indigenous Americans crossed the Atlantic before Britain founded its first colony in Virginia, traveling as diplomats, slaves and occasionally spouses and/or children of European men.

Smithsonian magazine this week reviews "On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe" and interviews its author, University of Sheffield (U.K.) historian Caroline Dodds Pennock.

"We know from the records that there were Indigenous people in rural Europe, across the Normandy coast of France, across Seville and the connected trans-Atlantic networks in Portugal, in Antwerp, in England," Pennock says, citing examples from her book.

An 1871 painting by Manuel Lopes Rodrigues depicts Catarina Paraguacu, daughter of the leader of the Tupinambás people in Bahia, Brazil, who married a Portuguese sailor. They and their three children would become the first Christian family in Brazil.
An 1871 painting by Manuel Lopes Rodrigues depicts Catarina Paraguacu, daughter of the leader of the Tupinambás people in Bahia, Brazil, who married a Portuguese sailor. They and their three children would become the first Christian family in Brazil.

One of them, an Indigenous woman, traveled to Spain with a man named Pedro.

After several years, Pedro married a Spanish woman, who then tried to claim that the Indigenous woman named Isabel and her two sons, Lorenzo and Gaspar, were slaves. In 1570, they appealed to the crown and won both their freedom and monetary compensation.

"It was really important for me to focus on the early period where we see the beginnings of globalization," Pennock said.

These stories, she added, "speak to a bigger story that is incredibly relevant right now, about the origins of our world as an entangled, cosmopolitan place."

Read more:

This ca. 1903-1904 drawing by Cheyenne artist Charles Murphy shows men and women playing snow-snake game. Smithsonian Institution Anthropological Archives MS 2531
This ca. 1903-1904 drawing by Cheyenne artist Charles Murphy shows men and women playing snow-snake game. Smithsonian Institution Anthropological Archives MS 2531

Ojibwe Snow Snaking returns to Wisconsin island

Next Month, Ojibwe athletes will hold winter games on an island in Lake Superior for the second time in 150 years. Madeline Island is the largest of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior and has long been an Ojibwe spiritual center. In the 19th century, the government banned tribes from playing winter games there because betting was taking place.

On February 11, players will converge on the island to compete in a game played by many Great Lakes tribes, Snow Snakes. The game involves carving and polishing sticks of various lengths – the "snakes" – then shooting them like javelins down a trough carved into the snow. The snake that glides the furthest wins.

In another variation of the games, players throw the sticks like javelins. Watch the game in action in the video below.

Read more:

Native American News Roundup January 8 – 14, 2023 

FILE - A sign welcoming visitors to the Blackfeet Indian reservation in Browning, Mont., Dec. 12, 2012.

Here is a summary of some of the top Native American-related news making headlines this week:

Montana lawmaker backs down on resolution questioning Indian reservation system

Facing strong opposition from Montana tribes, a state senator has backed away from introducing a draft resolution calling for Congress to rethink the Indian reservation system.

Last week, State Senator Keith Regier proposed that the Indian reservation system was race-based, created in a “different time and place and under circumstances that no longer exist” and therefore had no place in the modern state, nation and world.

The draft called on the legislature to find that the “Indian reservation system has clearly failed to positively enhance the lives and well-being of most of the Indians or the other citizens of the State of Montana … and failed to positively enhance the lives and well-being of most of the Indians or the other citizens of the State of Montana.”

Monday, Regier said he had changed his mind after “productive conversations” with fellow state senator Shane Morigeau, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Read more:

"Exhibit cases of the Department of Physical Anthropology in the National Museum of Natural History, 1911. The exhibit cases contain skulls and bones, on top of the exhibit cases sit busts of Native Americans." MNH-24061
"Exhibit cases of the Department of Physical Anthropology in the National Museum of Natural History, 1911. The exhibit cases contain skulls and bones, on top of the exhibit cases sit busts of Native Americans." MNH-24061

ProPublica and NBC launch collaborative investigation into NAGPRA compliance

The U.S. Interior Department (DOI) and its sub-institutions have the ninth largest collection of unrepatriated Native American remains in the Nation, according to a joint ProPublica/NBC investigation into why the remains of 110,000 Native American, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Natives ancestors are still held by museums, universities and federal agencies more than two decades after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) became law.

NAGPRA directs all federally-funded museums and federal agencies to catalogue all Native American human remains, funerary items, and objects of cultural significance in their collections, submit the information to a National Park Service database, and work with tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to repatriate them.

Hurdles include proving an item’s cultural affiliation with a particular tribe or community and the requirement that tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations must request the return of these items.

DOI told ProPublica that it complies with each of its legal obligations under existing regulations, subject to available funding.

“Under the current regulations, the bureaus are not required to consult or repatriate ‘culturally unidentifiable human remains’ unless requested by a Tribe or Native Hawaiian Organization,” it continued. “The Biden-Harris administration prioritizes repatriation, and the Department hopes that its proposed regulatory revisions to NAGPRA will help to address the existing backlog.”

The DOI is not alone. Six other federal agencies have made remains available, including the Departments of Defense and of State, along with hundreds of museums and universities. In other cases, some institutions have used a loophole in the law that allows them to retain artifacts if they deem them “culturally unidentifiable.” The report says the University of California at Berkeley tops that list with the remains of at least 9,000 Native Americans that have not been made available for return to tribes.

The project includes a searchable database and invites institutions and the public to submit tips, including anonymously.

Complex jurisdictional rules governing crimes on reservations mean that Native Americans may face twice the jail time given to non-Natives for similar offenses..
Complex jurisdictional rules governing crimes on reservations mean that Native Americans may face twice the jail time given to non-Natives for similar offenses..

Reports looks to curb overincarceration of Native Americans/Alaska Natives

The MacArthur Foundation has released a report showing that Native Americans are sentenced more harshly than white, Black or Hispanic offenders.

The report, “Over-Incarceration of Native Americans: Roots, Inequities, and Solutions,” says Native Americans and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) are “disproportionate represented” in state and federal criminal justice systems. But it notes that collecting accurate data is challenging: Often, prosecutors lump offenders into an “other” racial category; states and counties may not track race at all or may lack access to justice databases.

“Despite unclear and incomplete data, information suggests that once Native people enter the justice system, it becomes much more difficult for them to get out,” the report states.

Researchers point to a system that could help reduce disparities: Holistic defense, a system that defenders in the Bronx, New York, designed in 1997. This method looks at what drives offenders into the criminal justice system and “fits well with traditional, tribal principles.”

Read report here:

FILE - The Treasury Building is viewed in Washington, May 4, 2021.
FILE - The Treasury Building is viewed in Washington, May 4, 2021.

How tribes are using federal COVID aid to benefit citizens

Bloomberg media this week looked at how AI/ANs are using $20 billion in federal pandemic relief, the largest ever single infusion of federal funds into Indian Country.

Examples include:

The Menominee Indian Tribe in Wisconsin is building so-called “tiny homes” for low-income elders and unhoused tribal citizens.

The Walker River Paiute Tribe in rural Nevada is expanding its food pantry.

The Douglas Indian Association in Juneau, Alaska, has set up grants to help Native fisher men and women in the face of rising fuel prices, transportation restrictions and shrinking salmon populations.

After 132 Years, Wounded Knee Artifacts Come Home 

This photograph by Chadron, Nebraska, photographer George E. "Gus" Trager photographer shows soldiers holding moccasins and other items they have looted from the dead at the Wounded Knee Massacre site.

Editor’s Note: Some readers may find this content to be triggering.

Part 1 of this series looked at the circumstances leading to a massacre of Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890. In November, a museum in Barre, Massachusetts, repatriated more than 150 objects believed to have been looted from the massacre site. VOA dug through historic records and archives to trace how and when they were obtained, how they made their way to New England, and more than a century later, back to the Lakota.

John J. Egan; Huge Mound and the Manner of Opening Them, scene twenty from the Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, c.1850; distemper on cotton muslin; Saint Louis Art Museum, Eliza McMillan Trust 34:1953
John J. Egan; Huge Mound and the Manner of Opening Them, scene twenty from the Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, c.1850; distemper on cotton muslin; Saint Louis Art Museum, Eliza McMillan Trust 34:1953

Native American remains and artifacts have always held a fascination for non-Native Americans.

In the 1780s, former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson excavated Native burial sites in Virginia, earning himself the nickname “father of American archaeology.”

In the decades that followed, amateur archaeologists excavated hundreds of burial mounds across America, selling bones and artifacts to museums and private collectors.

The massacre at Wounded Knee ignited what one Nebraska newspaper called days later a “relics craze.” But why?

This advertisement for the 1925 American western film "The Vanishing American", in the May 16, 1925 Exhibitors Herald helped perpetuate the notion of Native Americans as relics of history.
This advertisement for the 1925 American western film "The Vanishing American", in the May 16, 1925 Exhibitors Herald helped perpetuate the notion of Native Americans as relics of history.

“Part of it came from this problematic idea that Native American communities were disappearing,” said Aaron Miller, associate curator of visual and material culture at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in Massachusetts. “You began to see both museums and collectors acquiring these objects to show this idea — this false idea — of what once ‘was.’”

Clipping from Omaha Bee Newspaper, January 9, 1891. From Library of Congress Chronicling America archives.
Clipping from Omaha Bee Newspaper, January 9, 1891. From Library of Congress Chronicling America archives.

Scavengers

The smoke of Hotchkiss guns had barely cleared when members of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry began picking through the bodies of the fallen, retrieving “souvenirs” of the 1890 massacre.

The next morning, a group of townsmen from Chadron, Nebraska, got a military pass and hired a coach to race more than 130 kilometers to Wounded Knee. Among them was local photographer Gus Trager, who would achieve fame for his photograph of slain Chief Si Tanka — “Big Foot.”

Ten days later, Trager and town barber Joe Ford had amassed what a local newspaper called “the finest and rarest collection of war dresses, ghost shirts, trinkets, moccasins, etc., now on earth,” including “the entire outfit of Chief Big Foot and the old Medicine Man who brought on the great fight.”

Undated photograph of Chadron, Nebraska.
Undated photograph of Chadron, Nebraska.

When the Nebraska National Guard was called to nearby towns shortly after the massacre, young guardsmen also joined the relics “craze.”

Omaha Daily Bee correspondent Charles H. Cressy was one of three reporters on the scene at Wounded Knee when the massacre began. Three weeks later, his newspaper reported that items he brought from the site were now on display in an Omaha shop window.

The demand for relics grew, and by mid-February 1891, The Dayton Herald of Ohio noted that many western towns, especially Omaha, were filled with “itinerant vendors of souvenirs of the fight at Wounded Knee.”

“For a moderate investment of cash, the Eastern “tenderfoot” [newcomer] can procure any sort of a relic,” the article said.

To meet demand, some individuals manufactured counterfeit relics, according to the Pickens County Herald and West Alabamian. The newspaper reported that a Chadron journalist attempted to fool a prospective buyer by manufacturing a “ghost shirt” from a stamped hotel bedsheet. It was the ink stamp that gave him away.

Army contractors and soldiers gathering the dead at the Wounded Knee massacre site, early January, 1891.
Army contractors and soldiers gathering the dead at the Wounded Knee massacre site, early January, 1891.

The Tenderfoot from Massachusetts

Traveling shoe salesman Francis Pitkin Root arrived in Omaha just as troops were returning from the “Sioux war.” He purchased a considerable collection from Pine Ridge Agency transportation manager Cornelius “Nealy” Williams, who had ferried U.S. troops to and from the front and was later paid to cart Lakota bodies to a nearby burial trench.

According to a July 19, 1891, account in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, Root bought:

  • A bearskin war bonnet crowned with a circlet of bristles, out of which rose a dyed red eagle feather; it was trimmed with two ponytails and, at the back, a yard-long [nearly 1 meter] “scalp of a white woman.”
  • A buckskin war shirt “worn by a chief in the camp of Sitting Bull,” decorated with dyed porcupine quills with matching beaded elk hide leggings.
  • A Navajo blanket trimmed in eagle feathers.
  • A scalp “torn from the head of an Indian warrior,” with flesh intact.
  • A “skeleton” saddle, covered in rawhide, which had bloodstains on the pommel.
  • Moccasins taken from the feet of Chief Flying Horse.
  • A Ghost shirt decorated with hand-painted thunderbirds — which 19th century writers described as “devil birds” or “harpies,” and a foot-long [0.3-meter] scalp of “coarse black hair.”
  • A blue “papoose sack” (cradleboard), trimmed with thousands of tiny beads; a pink basket; a combination pipe/tomahawk, a necklace of 50 deer hooves; bows, arrows, and photographs of Sitting Bull and other leaders.

By that summer, some of Root’s items were on display in shoe store windows in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Brooklyn, New York. By late December, the artifacts were on view at a department store in Boston, where newspapers noted that they would shortly be placed on permanent loan at “a museum in connection with a public library” in Barre, Massachusetts.

This notice in the New York Sun nerwspaper July 17, 1891, advertised the display of Wounded Knee artifacts and remains collected by shoe salesman Frank P. Root. Courtesy Library of Congress digital newspaper collection.
This notice in the New York Sun nerwspaper July 17, 1891, advertised the display of Wounded Knee artifacts and remains collected by shoe salesman Frank P. Root. Courtesy Library of Congress digital newspaper collection.

Recovery

Nearly 100 years later, former Oglala President Alex White Plume got a phone call.

“In the summer of 1990, a lady called me from Massachusetts and said, ‘Do you know that the clothing of all the dead people at Wounded Knee is up here in the museum at Barre?’ That just shocked me. Oh! It was hard to bear.”

White Plume flew to Massachusetts with his aunt and uncle.

“We went in and could just sense the spirits,” White Plume said. “I saw a clump of hair, and I said, ‘This is Bigfoot's hair!’ And little baby clothes, totally beaded, just beautiful designs. And then you’d look at the back part, there would be a big black hole where the bullet exited the body.”

View of the Woods Memorial Library, Barre, Mass., which will return Lakota artifacts, including some from the Wounded Knee Massacre site.
View of the Woods Memorial Library, Barre, Mass., which will return Lakota artifacts, including some from the Wounded Knee Massacre site.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe asked author and activist Mia Feroleto to help negotiate the items’ return from the Barre Founders Museum. She told VOA she was stunned to find how little they had deteriorated after more than a century stored in a building without heat or air conditioning.

“The colors were as bright as they would have been the day before the massacre 130 years ago,” Feroleto said. “The energy in these objects, to my mind is a testament of the spirit of the people, because they were perfectly preserved.”

Handpainted hide parfleche, part of a collection of items the Barre, Massachusetts, Founders Museum returned to the Lakota in November, 2022.
Handpainted hide parfleche, part of a collection of items the Barre, Massachusetts, Founders Museum returned to the Lakota in November, 2022.

In November 2022, Oglala and Miniconjou Lakota gathered in the cafeteria of a Barre elementary school for a ceremony to reclaim the artifacts, joined by members of the local Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and the state-recognized Nipmuc tribe.

Members of the International Indigenous Youth Council's Oglala Lakota Chapter offer a prayers during the repatriation of artifacts associated with the 1890 Wounded Knee, Sat., Nov. 5, 2022, in Barre, Massachusetts.
Members of the International Indigenous Youth Council's Oglala Lakota Chapter offer a prayers during the repatriation of artifacts associated with the 1890 Wounded Knee, Sat., Nov. 5, 2022, in Barre, Massachusetts.

The items are currently being stored at the Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota, where they will remain for the foreseeable future.

In the coming months, descendants will work to decide the fate of their ancestors’ belongings. Should they be turned over to the Miniconjou at Cheyenne River, whose ancestors made up most of the massacre victims? What about the Hunkpapa from Standing Rock, who also lost ancestors at Wounded Knee?

And the items themselves: Should they be buried with the victims or burned according to traditional Lakota burial practices?

Nearly everyone involved agrees that what matters most is finally releasing the spirits of those ancestors.

Lakota Descendants Remember Ancestors Killed at Wounded Knee  

Oglala Lakota president Frank Star Comes Out (L), holding the tribe's canupa (pipe), joins Lakota gathered at Wounded Knee Cemetery to honor massacre victims, Dec. 29, 2022. Courtesy Frank Star Comes Out.
Editor’s Note: This story may be triggering for some readers.

Lakota from reservations across South Dakota gathered at the Wounded Knee Cemetery on the Pine Ridge Reservation to commemorate ancestors massacred by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890.

On top of 2-foot snowdrifts at the cemetery on December 29, 2022, lay a collection of cardboard boxes containing artifacts and items of clothing believed to have been ripped from the victims’ bodies. After years of negotiations, the items were returned to the Lakota by a small museum in Barre, Massachusetts.

Museum records show only that a traveling shoe salesman from Barre acquired the items on a trip West in 1891 and donated them to the Barre Museum a few years later.

Now on the cold December day, spiritual leaders Richard Moves Camp, an Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, and Ivan Looking Horse, a Miniconjou from the Cheyenne River Reservation, led the gathering in prayer and a ritual feeding of the spirits.

Oglala Sioux Tribe President Frank Star Comes Out speaks to Lakota gathered to honor victims of Wounded Knee Massacre, Porcupine, S.D., Dec. 29, 2022.
Oglala Sioux Tribe President Frank Star Comes Out speaks to Lakota gathered to honor victims of Wounded Knee Massacre, Porcupine, S.D., Dec. 29, 2022.

Later, dozens of Lakota gathered in the warmth of a nearby school where they shared family histories of the massacre, viewed photos of the returned artifacts, and honored the dead.

VOA spent weeks digging through historic records and newspaper accounts to find out more.

Background

In the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, the U.S. government set aside 233,000 square kilometers west of the Missouri River for the “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes, collectively known as the Sioux.

When Lieutenant General George Custer and his 7th Cavalry confirmed there was gold in the Black Hills of that area, prospectors rushed in. By 1875, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ordered the tribes to move. When they resisted, the U.S. government sent in troops, setting off armed conflict that would see Custer defeated.

By 1889, the various bands of Lakota were consigned to separate reservations, with their old ways of life forbidden and the buffalo, which had sustained them for thousands of years, gone.

Subsisting on inadequate government rations of beef, they looked for a miracle.

This political cartoon satirizing corrupt Indian agents pocketing federal funds and issuing "starvation rations" to Indians. Published in Judge Magazine nine days before the Wounded Knee Massacre.
This political cartoon satirizing corrupt Indian agents pocketing federal funds and issuing "starvation rations" to Indians. Published in Judge Magazine nine days before the Wounded Knee Massacre.

The ghost dance

In 1890, the Lakota heard about a Paiute man in Nevada who had a vision while cutting wood for his white employer. He fell and died, and God lifted him to heaven. There, he saw white and Native people, made young again, “dancing, gambling, playing ball and having all kinds of sports.”

That vision sparked the Ghost Dance, based on beliefs that if men were good, worked hard, didn’t fight and danced for five nights in succession, God would bring the dead back to life and restore to the Indians their former ways of life. White men would vanish, but details weren’t clear.

Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka ("Jack Wilson", near Walker Lake Reservation, Nevada, 1926.
Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka ("Jack Wilson", near Walker Lake Reservation, Nevada, 1926.

To learn more, the Lakota sent Miniconjou chief Kicking Bear and a Sicangu Lakota from The Rosebud Agency named Short Bull to Nevada.

“They didn’t all speak English,” said Ernie LaPointe, the closest living direct descendant of Chief Sitting Bull. “So, they had to speak with hand signals.”

The message that the duo brought back from Nevada lost something in the translation.

“They told the Indians that they had been up near Salt Lake, Utah, to visit the new Messiah,” U.S. agent at Pine Ridge Daniel Royer telegrammed Washington, “and they were told by him … that a new Earth would be formed and would pass over this one, burying the whites beneath.”

Cabinet card photograph of Kicking Bear and Short Bull, by W.H. DeGraff, 1892.
Cabinet card photograph of Kicking Bear and Short Bull, by W.H. DeGraff, 1892.

“It was Kicking Bear and Short Bull who conjured up this story that if Indians wore these ghost shirts, that a white man's bullets would never hurt them,” said LaPointe. He believes the men got the idea from Mormon colonists in Nevada, who wore white “temple garments” to protect them against temptation and spiritual evil.

Within weeks, hundreds gathered to dance. Some Indian agents and military officials viewed it as a harmless diversion; others believed the tribes were gearing up for insurrection.

Royer again telegrammed Washington: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. … We need protection, and we need it now.”

The White House answered by sending in several thousand troops.

Tipping point

Indian agent James McLaughlin believed Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull was “the high priest” and chief instigator of the “Messiah craze.” He visited Sitting Bull at his cabin near the Grand River and asked him to stop the “absurd craze.” Sitting Bull refused.

“My great grandfather knew that his ghost dance was not a Lakota sacred ceremony. But he had to give his hope to his people, so he allowed them to do this,” LaPointe said.

Studio portrait of Sitting Bull by Orlando Scott Goff, 1881.
Studio portrait of Sitting Bull by Orlando Scott Goff, 1881.

Sitting Bull decided to violate a travel ban and go to Pine Ridge to confer with Chief Red Cloud about easing tensions.

McLaughlin sent tribal police to arrest Sitting Bull on December 16. In the melee that ensued, Sitting Bull was shot dead.

A massacre

Sitting Bull’s half-brother Hupah Gleska, more commonly known as Si Tanka ("Big Foot"), leader of the Miniconjou Lakota, was at the time camped at the Cheyenne River Agency, 160 kilometers to the north.

This ca. 1890 photo by John C. H. Grabill show's Miniconjou Lakota leader Si Tanka's (Big Foot) encampment on the Cheyenne River Agency. Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript, Yale University. WA Photos 261
This ca. 1890 photo by John C. H. Grabill show's Miniconjou Lakota leader Si Tanka's (Big Foot) encampment on the Cheyenne River Agency. Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript, Yale University. WA Photos 261

“He thought the government was going to come after him,” said Michael He Crow, an Oglala Lakota and descendant of Big Foot. “He felt that he was going to be the next one to die because he had a lot of influence among the people there.”

This photo of Miniconjou leader Hupah Gleska ("Spotted Elk"), dubbed Si Tanka ("Big Foot"), was taken in 1888, two years before he was killed in the Wounded Knee Massacre.
This photo of Miniconjou leader Hupah Gleska ("Spotted Elk"), dubbed Si Tanka ("Big Foot"), was taken in 1888, two years before he was killed in the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Big Foot and several hundred followers set out for Pine Ridge, but the Army intercepted them and forced them to camp at the tiny village of Wounded Knee.

On December 29, the Army ordered the Lakota to disarm.

"The men and women were separated," said He Crow. "Most of the men were sitting in a council circle and were the first ones killed. And the ones running were mostly women."

What happened to spark the massacre that followed? Some say it was when the medicine man, Yellow Bird, grabbed a handful of dirt from the ground and threw it up into the air.

An undated photo of Wounded Knee massacre survivor Alice Ghost Horse/Kills the Enemy/War Bonnet, provided by her descendant Manny Iron Hawk, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in S.D.
An undated photo of Wounded Knee massacre survivor Alice Ghost Horse/Kills the Enemy/War Bonnet, provided by her descendant Manny Iron Hawk, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in S.D.

“He was praying and crying,” a Hohwoju Lakota survivor named Alice Ghost Horse/Kills the Enemy/War Bonnet would later tell her son. “He was saying to the eagles that he wanted to die instead of his people. … He picked up some dirt from the fireplace and threw it in the air and said this is the way he wanted to go back … to dust.”

Others tell a different story.

“When they were taking the guns away from them, there was a man that was deaf,” He Crow said. “They were trying to tell him to put his gun in the middle of the pile, but he held on to the gun and told them, ‘This is the only thing I have to keep food on the table and stay alive. And you're taking this away from me?’”

The gun went off as officers tried to wrestle it away, said He Crow. And that’s when the Army began firing revolving cannons and rifles.

“It was chaos,” Violet Catches, a Hohwoju Lakota from the Cheyenne River Reservation, said. Her grandfather Leon Holy, then around 12, was one of five children who survived the massacre.

The makeshift hospital inside the Holy Cross Episcopal Church on the Pine Ridge Agency where wounded Lakota were cared for following the Massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D., 1891. Note the Christmas decorations still hanging.
The makeshift hospital inside the Holy Cross Episcopal Church on the Pine Ridge Agency where wounded Lakota were cared for following the Massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D., 1891. Note the Christmas decorations still hanging.

As many as 300 Lakota men, women and children died that day; some who were tracked as far as 3 kilometers from the site. Official accounts say the massacre took 20 minutes, but Ghost Horse/Kills the Enemy/War Bonnet said the shooting didn’t stop until after sunset.

They would be buried in a mass pit several days later, but not before they were picked clean of their weapons and belongings, including the ghost shirts on their backs.

NOTE: Part 2 of this story will examine the “relics craze” that followed the massacre and show how dozens of items associated with Wounded Knee ended up in Massachusetts.

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