James Czywczynski owns the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.

AP Photo/Rapid City Journal, Kristina Barker

James Czywczynski owns the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.

Mad As Hell: The Man Looking to Sell Wounded Knee

James Czywczynski, the owner of the site of the Wounded Knee massacre, has stated publicly that he will wait until May 1 to entertain offers for the purchase of his land from the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He has said that once this deadline passes he will then consider other offers. He is seeking to sell the historic site and another parcel at Porcupine Butte as a package deal for no less than $4.9 million.

To date, the tribe has made no statement that they plan to buy the land. For the past month various reports on each new development of the sale have been closely followed by national and international news media. After Brandon Ecoffey, managing editor of Native Sun News, broke the news that Czywczynski planned on selling this sacred and historic site, noted columnist Chuck Trimble pointed out that the land was originally purchased from the Gildersleeve family with the intent to build a monument and profit from a motel and restaurant tourism complex. The plans fell through when tribal opposition grew. (Related story: “Wounded Knee Massacre Site Not a Good Investment for Speculators)

Now on the eve of the sale, Czywczynski spoke to ICTMN in an attempt to lay to rest any rumors about his wishes regarding the sale, and his family. In this Q&A he airs long-standing grievances, frustrations at being unable to secure a deal with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and his account of the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Throughout it all, he makes it clear that he is not about to gift the land to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and he will in fact sell the land to other parties if he can't strike a deal.

Some members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe have said you bought the land to forgive a $300 grocery store debt. Is that true?

That is ridiculous. The land was put up for sale in the 1930s as an allotment so the Native people could sell their land. The Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation was sold off and there are many non-Indian ranchers, farmers, businessmen, cowboys and casinos that are owned and within the confines of that reservation.

Our property was bought in the 1930s by Woodrow Wilson who signed the deed. Clive Gildersleeve’s father bought the land and store in 1935, which included 40 acres of the national historical site of Wounded Knee. In 1968, I bought the property from the Gildersleeve’s which included the Trading Post Museum, a home, four cabins and museum artifacts. The 40 acres we bought included the ravine and the area where the massacre took place in 1890.

Did you move to Wounded Knee in 1968 in an attempt to have a profitable venture?

No, the reason we moved there is because we bought a trading post and the museum as well as four cabins, which were owned by the Gildersleeves. They were ready to retire. They inquired after people that they thought would be interested. They felt that I and my family with four children (I was a Public Accountant in Rapid City, South Dakota) could run this business and take it over. They felt very confident in me that I could do that and they could retire.

It was a challenge and something we were interested in doing, and getting into our own business. A lot of times you don't think of going to an Indian reservation and running a business, but it was a great opportunity. We thought it would be nice for the family and children.

We were there until the militant Indian thugs came and took it over and burned it to the ground.

I had a meeting today with Native Sun News and we’re going to be on TV tonight at 5 and 10 o’clock.

I was told you and your family were run off the land, is this true?

We were there from 1968 until 1973. In 1973, the militant Indians, the American Indian Movement, had gone to Washington, D.C. and caused the BIA $3 to $4 million in damage. They destroyed all of the artifacts, they smashed the urinals in the bathrooms, and they broke every window.

What did the government do? They rounded them up put them on a bus and paid $66,000 to send them back to South Dakota.

When they came back, they came back to Rapid City and did damage, they went to Custer, South Dakota and burned down the courthouse they went to other areas and did damage. They went to the BIA in Pine Ridge but it was guarded by the Marshal Service with guns They could not go into the BIA building without getting people killed.

For some reason, 40 carloads came in February of 1973 to Wounded Knee and took over the complex. They stayed there for 71 days. When I got it back, it was all destroyed, burned. Everything was burnt to the ground, my home, my store and my trading post. They stole all of the artifacts, they burned my museum, and they burned four cabins and all my vehicles to the ground.

Where was I that night? I was at a basketball game with my son in Kyle, South Dakota. We were coming home and we were stopped by the marshal service. We stayed with a friend for three or four days thinking that tomorrow this would be over, and tomorrow never came. I took my four children to Dickinson, South Dakota, I put them in school there and when we came back to Wounded Knee when it was over, they had burned everything to the ground. They left my family, my children and I homeless.

We went to Rapid City and we ended up buying a little campground in Rapid City and stayed there.

Did you ever receive any compensation for the damages?

Many people tried to provide compensation. Sen. Alvarez and Sen. McGovern introduced sponsored bills for reparations. There was a House bill introduced but people from Maryland and Colorado don't give a damn about South Dakota, We are just one little drop of water in the ocean. There was never any reparations awarded to us.

We were not the only ones affected, they burned several churches, many Indian homes and everything was destroyed in their homes. They killed a lot of cattle owned by the ranchers because they needed a lot of stuff to eat. They killed many horses and livestock.

During the time when the two FBI agents were killed, one of other the guys that was killed was wearing my Navy pea coat, everyone was arrested, they went to Sioux Falls, South Dakota for trials and the government never convicted one person.

Were you or your family members taken hostage during the takeover?

No, AIM did take hostages, the Gildersleeve's were taken hostage and they were released. They were taken hostage for about 10 days. They took another hostage, who was a priest of the Catholic Church. The AIM people went in and urinated all over the church and eventually burned it to the ground.

Some Oglala Sioux members say you were a grumpy old man who took advantage of other tribal members, are these allegations true at all?

No, we had a very good relationship with Indian people; we worked with them every day. They were all friends of ours.

There were other allegations that you would cash checks for partial amounts or were dishonest about store credit. Is this true?

No, during those years the Indian people did not get a monthly check like they do now, today they get an EIB Card once a month and they go to Wal-Mart to fill up with groceries. In those years, they were given money once a year and that was if you had land. The BIA took money from the people who leased it, the farmers and ranchers and non-Indians—they took this money and December right before Christmas, they would send these people a check.

The Gildersleeve’s ran the store by giving Indian people credit for an entire year. In those years there was no refrigeration or freezers. They did that all year long. When the Indian people got their lease check from the government, they took their lease check and paid the Trading Post for their yearly charges.

So how did things change?

The only thing that changed that was AIM. None of the AIM people were from Pine Ridge. Most of them were from Minneapolis.

They were just thugs. A lot of them were not from Pine Ridge, they just wanted some of the action. When the marshal service surrounded Wounded Knee on February 27, 1973, there was no way to get in and out of there. But they had my store and my trading post and my home. They stole everything out of the store, it was like a small Wal-Mart. That's how they lasted 71 days.

A lot of American Indians think you should give the land back.

A lot of people say I should give the land back and I would if I was a multimillionaire. But I am not; I lost everything at Wounded Knee in 1973. What makes them think that I should give it to them? Everything is given to the Indians anyway. There are hundreds of millions poured into the Pine Ridge reservation every year.

There are no jobs down there, no factories, nothing. When I was down there, we had a moccasin factory, a fly fishing factory and other factories, people were working. Today, if you went down there, you have to set your clock back 40 years. They have not progressed one day. It is sad, but that's the way it is.

At first you asked for $3.9 million, and now you are asking for $4.9 million.

There are two parcels of land which are 40 acre sites. The other site is the last known burial site of Crazy Horse, which encompasses 40 acres and the other is the national historic site of Wounded Knee.

You only want to sell those together?

Yes.

Which groups are offering to buy this land?

They call themselves a management group. The other one is a venture capitalist. They will not tell me who the participants are, but they guaranteed me that by tomorrow I will have a bona fide written offer in the mail.

Have the Oglala Sioux Tribe said anything to you about purchasing the site?

Not directly, indirectly yes. There is a group that is looking at it and they somehow are associated with the Oglala Sioux Tribe. But they won’t tell me who they are, I don’t know why these people are so indirect but everything is secretive. They told me this morning at 10:30 that they want the property, they are asking for a week’s time to put together their funding and they will not tell me who they are. I do know the go-between guy, I asked who they are but he says I can’t tell you at this time.

I was tricked once by a guy from the Pine Ridge reservation and it turned out to be a hoax. I am 95 percent assured that this is a legitimate group and they’re going to pull it off. I want to get it done this week; I want to get this over with.

I have gotten a lot of heat and I have been bashed by some of the best, but that is all right.

If you still had your store there today, what do you think the value would be?

The value would be tremendous. If I could have stayed there, I could have been bigger than Crazy Horse, which sees over one million people a year now. Wounded Knee has that opportunity too. People there want me to give it to them; they're doing everything except trying to buy it. They cannot see the trees in the forest. They do not see economic recovery, economic development or tourism, because they have been handed everything their entire life. That is really sad.

I went down there with the Australian BBC, we spent 4 and a 1/2 hours down there and there were people selling arts and crafts from their cars. There should be a large cultural center there.

I have a family with six children and they all want the Oglala Sioux Tribe to have this property. But I have been trying to sell it to them for 30 years. I finally decided, I am 75 years old and they have had ample opportunities to buy this property. They have also just got $25 million from the Cobell settlement; the tribe gave $1 million to each of nine districts. They had $5.5 million left over and they still didn't offer to buy Wounded Knee.

(Related story: "Wounded Knee Sale Deadline Looms")

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Mad As Hell: The Man Looking to Sell Wounded Knee

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