WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. — Ever since American soldiers massacred men, women and children here more than a century ago in the last major bloodshed of the American Indian wars, this haunted patch of rolling hills and ponderosa pines has embodied the combustible relationship between Indians and the United States government.
It was here that a group of Indian activists aired their grievances against the government with a forceful takeover in 1973 that resulted in protests, a bloody standoff with federal agents and deep divisions among the Indian people.
And now the massacre site, which passed into non-Indian hands generations ago, is up for sale, once again dragging Wounded Knee to the center of the Indian people’s bitter struggle against perceived injustice — as well as sowing rifts within the tribe over whether it would be proper, should the tribe get the land, to develop it in a way that brings some money to the destitute region.
James A. Czywczynski of Rapid City is asking $3.9 million for the 40-acre plot he owns here, far more than the $7,000 that the deeply impoverished Oglala Sioux say the land is worth. Mr. Czywczynski insists that his price fairly accounts for the land’s sentimental and historical value, an attitude that the people here see as disrespect.
“That historical value means something to us, not him,” said Garfield Steele, a member of the tribal council who represents Wounded Knee. “We see that greed around here all the time with non-Indians. To me, you can’t put a price on the lives that were taken there.”
Land disputes strike an emotional chord for American Indians, given the United States’ long history of neglected promises and broken treaties. The clash over Wounded Knee is raising the moral, legal and social quandaries that have burdened generations of American Indians.
Should they even have to buy land that they believe was stolen from them? Should the land be developed or preserved as sacred? Should the tribe, whose people are among the poorest in America, capitalize on what happened here?
Just last year, the Great Sioux Nation found itself in a similar struggle to preserve sacred ground. Pe’ Sla, a vast swath of Black Hills prairie land that they believe was the site of an epic battle between good and evil, was put up for sale by a non-Indian. Several Sioux bands, fearing that the land could be desecrated by commercial development, raised $9 million to buy the 1,942 acres.
The outlook for acquiring the Wounded Knee parcel, which sits on the Pine Ridge Reservation, is not as bright. The burden for buying the land will probably fall to the Oglala Sioux tribe, which is at least $60 million in debt, according to its treasurer, Mason Big Crow, and would need to borrow money to meet Mr. Czywczynski’s asking price.
The massacre on Dec. 29, 1890, was said to have started when a shot rang out as soldiers of the United States Seventh Cavalry searched Chief Big Foot’s band, which it had arrested and detained here. (Some Indians hypothesize that the massacre was retribution for the routing of Gen. George Custer and his troops at Little Bighorn 14 years earlier.) Estimates of the death toll vary from 150 to more than 300, with some of the bodies recovered on the land Mr. Czywczynski owns.
The land is believed to have gotten into non-Indian hands sometime after a process of allotment began in the late 1800s in which the federal government divided land among the Indians and gave some parcels to non-Indians. Mr. Czywczynski bought the land in 1968, lived there and ran the trading post and museum. He moved away in 1973, after the violent occupation of Wounded Knee by an organization known as the American Indian Movement left much of the town destroyed, including the trading post and his home. Mr. Czywczynski said he had been trying to sell the land to the Oglala Sioux for about three decades, and he blamed the tribe’s internal disorder for his inability to do so.
“They never could agree on anything,” he said. “They either did not have the money; some wanted it, some didn’t want it; it was too high, too low. I’ve come to the conclusion now, at my age, I’m 74 years old, I’m going to sell the property.”
If the tribe does not buy it by May 1, Mr. Czywczynski said, he will put it up for auction on the open market.
The Oglala Sioux president, Bryan V. Brewer, said, “I don’t think we should buy something back that we own.” He added that he would leave it up to the descendants of the massacre to plan a way forward.
But that promises to be tricky. There is considerable disagreement over whether the tribe should profit from Wounded Knee through, for instance, developing tourist attractions.
“Whenever we discuss this Wounded Knee massacre topic, it takes us into a deep, deep psychological state because we have to relive the whole horror,” said Nathan Blindman, 56, one of whose ancestors survived the massacre. “Anything that might indicate that as descendants we’re profiting from our ancestors’ tragedy, we can’t ever do that.”
Phyllis Hollow Horn, 56, whose great-grandmother and great-aunt were among the survivors, said she would be open to an educational memorial, but was hesitant about seeing the tribe profit.
“How and who should do that is a whole big question,” she said. “Ultimately, that’s a decision the descendants have to make.”
But many find that unyielding traditionalism hard to swallow, given the hardship on the reservation. Shannon County, which encompasses most of Pine Ridge, has the highest percentage of people living below poverty in the nation at 53.5 percent, according to census data compiled by Social Explorer. Nearly three-quarters of the people in the county are either unemployed or not in the work force.
Proponents of commercialism at Wounded Knee note that community members already profit at the site, selling crafts to tourists in the area. This frequently leads to turf battles, and some have suggested building a market to bring order to the trade.
Garry Rowland, a Wounded Knee native, runs a one-room visitor center that he built next to the mass grave where most of the massacre victims were buried. Some residents have criticized his center, calling it unofficial and accusing him of profiting on the blood of their ancestors.
But Mr. Rowland said that his great-great-grandfather Chief Fire Lightning owned the land before the massacre and that his family should decide what should be done. (Ms. Hollow Horn disputed that Fire Lightning owned the land or that he was a chief.)
“We don’t charge admission to our museum,” said Mr. Rowland, who participated in the 1973 takeover, hangs the American flag upside down and proudly wears an F.B.I. cap that he says stands for “full-blooded Indian.” “We’re just trying to preserve what history took place here. We tell the truth of what happened.”
Some have advocated for development like a gas station and a general store to save on the roughly 20-minute drive to Pine Ridge for basic amenities. They also say that building a motel would help attract visitors.
While she respects the lives lost in the massacre, Lillian Red Star Fire Thunder, a 79-year-old Wounded Knee resident, said she disagreed with those who “make it sound like it’s taboo” to develop the land.
“That was yesterday; tomorrow is going to be tomorrow,” she said. “They should think about the future for the children, the families.”