Indianz.Com > News > Native Sun News Today: Wounded Knee descendants left out of repatriation process
Spotted Elk
A photo of Chief Spotted Elk, also known as Big Foot, was taken sometime in 1888, two years before the December 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Photo: T. W. Smillie
NAGPRA not followed in repatriation of cultural items
Monday, November 28, 2022

There is an iconic 1890 photo etched deeply in the minds of most people who have ever seen it, a man, Chief Big Foot, body frozen stiff on bloody snow.

For millions of people around the world, this image, and the man, have become a symbol of military aggression, injustice, and murder. Over 250 Lakota, 47 of them women and children, were surrounded by elements of the Seventh Cavalry and while the process of disarming them was well underway, a rifle shot rang out, initiating a mass slaughter.

Although the U.S. Congress officially expressed their “deep regret” for this incident in 1990, they did not apologize, and the history since the massacre has been filled with reactions and consequences that resonate powerfully to this very day.

The lineal descendants of Chief Big Foot still survive, like Calvin and Michelle Spotted Elk, and there are two salient facts misunderstood about their ancestor. One, he was not Oglala, and those who followed him were not either; he came down to the Pine Ridge Reservation from his home on Cheyenne River, the home of the Four Bands, Minnecoujou, Oohenunpa, Itazipico, and Sihásapa. Along with some Hunkpapa from Standing Rock, these are the people who died at Wounded Knee.

An Associated Press story headlined “Wounded Knee artifacts highlight slow pace of repatriations ” notes that the Founders Museum in Massachusetts, as a private institution that has not received federal funds, is not required to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which would otherwise require descendants to be included in the repatriation process.

The reasons why they came are not germane to this article, save that at no time on that journey did they threaten or kill white settlers. But Wounded Knee is on the reservation of the Oglala, and so people assume this was the tribe massacred.

The other misunderstanding is his name. It was not Big Foot. It was Spotted Elk, and he was the half-brother of Sitting Bull.

A longtime ally and legal counsel for the Wounded Knee Survivors Association, and Oglala Lakota tribal member, Mario Gonzalez, told Native Sun News Today how Chief Big Foot got his name: “Burdell Blue Arm, from Cherry Creek, before he passed away, told me that Spotted Elk was from the Cheyenne River Reservation.”

“The government used to pass out rations and annuities and once they passed out some shoes. He was a chief, so he would never be the first in line to get these benefits, so he’d make sure all his followers got these benefits, or whatever else was available, and he would wait until last, and so when the shoes were all passed out he ended up with a pair of shoes that were too big for him but he put them on and wore them anyway, and so they called him Big Foot, it was a nickname,” Gonzalez continued. “That nickname kind of stuck, and the family doesn’t like to use that name. They like to use the original name which was Chief Spotted Elk.”

Calvin and Michelle were not contacted let alone invited to participate in the recent repatriation of about nine cultural items connected to Wounded Knee from the Founders Museum in Barre, Massachusetts, despite decades of efforts by Calvin to get his grandfather’s cultural items returned. Tunkashila is the Lakota word for grandfather, and it applies to an actual grandfather and to those who came before that grandfather.

“We found out after getting back from a long trip,” Michelle said, “that there was going to be a voluntary repatriation of the artifacts, and in 1994 Calvin and his father went to Barre, Massachusetts…”

“…on our own money,” Calvin adds.

“The items at that time,” Michelle continued, “including Chief Spotted Elk’s lock of hair, they had to be returned under NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). So, Jasper, Calvin’s father, put in a claim, and another gentlemen (Leonard Little Finger) put in a claim at the same time, and there was a conflict.”


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