Charles Trimble: Thoughts and questions on the sale of Wounded Knee

Charles “Chuck” Trimble. Courtesy photo

Some thoughts and questions on the sale of Wounded Knee
By Charles "Chuck" Trimble

The story broke on December 29, 2015, the 125th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre, that Lakota publisher Tim Giago has agreed to purchase the 40-acre tract of land that includes the grounds on which the infamous Massacre took place.

In an Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN) article entitled “Wounded Knee SOLD? Tim Giago Has Plans to Buy It for $3.9 Million,” Vincent Schilling wrote the following:

“Tim Giago, Lakota, renowned journalist, publisher and founder of publications such as the Lakota Times, Native Sun News and Indian Country Today, has told ICTMN he has signed an agreement to purchase the historic site of Wounded Knee from James Czywczynski for $3.9 million.

At about the same time, a website went online at, soliciting donations for the purchase and giving further details on the project.

In that ICTMN article Giago gives the reason he is making the purchase for the benefit of the nine Sioux tribal nations:
“I am 81 years old and I am at that age where I am not looking for any personal gain. I figure the best place for Wounded Knee to be is not just owned by the Oglala, It should be owned by all of the nine tribes of the great Sioux nation.

“I am going to raise the money, buy it from Czywczynski and then put the land and trust (sic) for the tribes of the great Sioux nation,” says Giago.

The plans described in Giago’s ICTMN interview and on the website raise a number of important questions; the first is if someone wants to buy land on a reservation and place it in trust (presumably with the Federal Government) in the name of nine other tribes, does that present a problem with such things as development of that property if any or all those tribes wish to do so? There would be other questions as to jurisdiction and how the parcels of land would be assigned to the various tribes. Or if those tribes would want to form a single entity to accept the lands and administer them, what would be the corpus of that entity? United Tribes of Wounded Knee?

My own suspicion is that the multi-tribal trust arrangement is to justify paying the exorbitant price being asked for the land by Mr. Czywczynski… make the purchase seem worth it, and answer the question that would be on the minds of prospective donors and other possible funders as to why pay so much for land that is not even being “used?”

Or it can be reasonably suspected that the reason Mr. Giago has made no effort to bring the price down, but instead has added the “benefits” that will accrue to other Indian tribes, i.e. trust ownership of the property, is because he is expecting a significant share of the proceeds for having promoted and brokered the sale – the larger the price, the bigger the “commission.”

Regardless of these questions and speculations, it is highly unlikely that his campaign can raise $3.9 million (and up to $5 million more for the museum and commercial complex) with just an on-line internet appeal. The project will likely be seeking grant funds from tribal casinos, foundations and others; but so far the website and media information do not give a convincing plan for investment in or contribution to the project. The website tells only that the land will be purchased with the proceeds of its campaign and (depending on the Tribes holding the lands in trust?) will be used for development of a large commercial complex:

The site's Our Mission page reads:
“After the funds are raised and the land is purchased we intend to put the land in trust for the all of the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation and work hand-in-hand with the tribal governments to continue to raise the funds to rebuild the trading post that was burned to the ground in 1973 and to construct a trade pavilion where members of all the tribe (sic) can set up year-around booths to sell their arts and crafts, and also to build a cultural center and holocaust museum that would tell the story of the Lakota People and of the history of the Wounded Knee massacre plus the massacres of Indians from Arizona to Idaho that have occurred in the United States.”

This is reminiscent of the plan put forth by Mr. Czywczynski and a group of speculators from Rapid City in 1970 that rankled many Lakotas and doomed the long-time owner of the Wounded Knee trading post.

In late 1968, private business interests in Rapid City, South Dakota, had concocted a plan to raise funds nationally to erect a massive marble monument over the mass grave of massacre victims as a means of attracting tourist to the site. Although it was initially presented as a way of paying back the Indians for the grave injustice of the 1890 massacre, it quickly became apparent that the real purpose was to make money for the trading post/museum there, as well as a new complex of motel, restaurant and curio shops that were part of the overall plan.

With much over-confidence, these speculators had incorporated two organizations: a for-profit misleadingly called the Sioux Corporation, and a non-profit called the Wounded Knee Memorial Association. The non-profit would have a single slot on its Board of Advisors for a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council; otherwise there would be no tribal or Indian interest in the project.

The monument, according to the preliminary design, consisted of two long marble tiers, the first leading up to a level on which would be several marble blocks, and on each of these would rest a sculptured bust of a “principle” in the “battle” representing the cavalry and, presumably, the Indians. The second tier would feature a tall Grecian column on top of which would burn an eternal flame. Emitting from the base of the monolithic column would be red Terrazzo, meant to look like blood oozing down the stairs in all four directions.

But the most repulsive feature of the design was to be a fence of cavalry sabers surrounding a sunken crypt on the higher tier; and in the crypt would be the bones of the massacred victims, which would be exhumed from the mass grave and entombed in the marble crypt.

One impediment that stood in the way was that of securing the land on which the cemetery with the mass grave was situated. This parcel belonged to the Holy Rosary Mission at Pine Ridge. The Superior at the Mission, Ted Zuern, S.J., was approached by Czywczynski and the Rapid City speculators, and as a means of softening him to sell, was invited to serve on the Board of Advisors, along with Senator George McGovern and other important people.

Zuern was horrified at the idea, and especially the design that was shown to him. He asked if they had gotten agreement from the Tribe or the people in the Wounded Knee community. They had not, but it was clear they were convinced that as soon as those people realized the amounts of money the plan would bring in, the tribe would buy into the plan.

Zuern went to the tribal council and met with their executive committee about the proposal. They too expressed objection to the plans.

As word spread further throughout the reservation and into Rapid City, Indian opposition grew.

However, the slick operators from the city had already gotten Clive Gildersleeve to agree to sell them his Wounded Knee trading post and his parcels of land, which included the massacre grounds. Gildersleeve himself was promised a seat on the Board of the new non-profit and would have profited nicely if the plan had gone through. This is what angered many Lakota people who trusted and respected the Gildersleeve family for many years. The plan had lost all momentum to reality as the tribe refused to enter into the project, and the American Indian Movement entered the scene with their occupation in 1973.

But the dream of exploiting the Massacre site was not lost on Czywczynski. Soon after the AIM occupation ended in early 1974, and Clive Gildersleeve was forced to surrender the pathetic remains of his property, which by then only included the lands, for the trading post and museum on the property were destroyed by AIM occupiers. When the bank in Gordon, Nebraska, foreclosed and put the 40-acres of land up for sale, Czywczynski bought it for a pittance (in the neighborhood of $20,000 or less, reportedly), and is now asking $3.9 million for that same property.

In the ICTMN article, Tim Giago is quoted as saying “I signed an agreement to be the sole purchaser of Wounded Knee. The reason is that it has been sitting there idle and doing nothing for over 40 years.”

It struck me that when the white pioneers first saw the Great Plains it must have been the same thing that gave them cause to take the lands from the original tribal people who never claimed to own the lands, but respected them for their mutual survival: These lands are not being USED! The lands are doing NOTHING!

This begs the question: what is land supposed to “do” to earn respect and preservation on the part of its occupiers – especially if it is land made sacred by the martyrdom of their forebears?

Charles E. Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was the principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He can be reached at

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