Opinions are divided in the Native American community over an offer by movie star Johnny Depp to buy land at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre and give it back to the Lakota.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe said Wednesday that it had been contacted by Depp, who plays Tonto in the recently released movie "The Lone Ranger." Depp is offering to purchase a 40-acre parcel put on the market by James Czywczynski, 76, Rapid City.
For months, Czywczynski's sale plans have riled emotions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Czywczynski wants $3.9 million for the parcel, where the U.S. military killed 300 Lakota men, women, and children in 1890. He wants $1 million for an additional piece on Porcupine Butte, which he said is a package deal.
Tribal officials have repeatedly called Czywczynsk's price inflated to the point of extortion. Shannon County has appraised the combined value of the parcels at $14,000 by county appraisers.
But now Depp's offer has caused the Oglala to reassess their position.
"You see these celebrities with a lot of money and a lot of times you hear about the useless spending they do, this is something different, something that's unbelievable," said Garfield Steele, a council representative for the Wounded Knee District, who believes the tribe should take Depp's offer.
But others were less convinced. Nathan Blindman, a descendant of the survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre, said that, although Depp's offer is well-intentioned, the hearty profit that Czywczynski would make from the sale would be disrespectful to those who died.
"The bottom line is it's still selling the tragedy and violence," he said. "It's still making money off it, no matter who buys it."
In a profile for the Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper, Depp said he was deeply interested in Native American issues and he was saddened, given the atrocities that occurred at Wounded Knee, that the Sioux didn't own Czywczynski's parcel.
He told the newspaper that he was doing his "best" to return the land to the Sioux.
Toni Red Cloud, a tribal spokeswoman said Thursday that president Bryan Brewer had met that morning with one group of descendants of the survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre to discuss Depp's offer. The tribe now plans to set up a meeting with Czywczynski.
Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, based in Minnesota, also expressed concerns about Depp's offer.
He said that if the tribe accepted, it could encourage other non-native landowners to inflate their prices when dealing with the tribe, especially if their land has historical value.
"Now every owner under the sun is going to think if you have land on the reservation that tribes are going to step up and pay through the nose for it, or someone's going to step up and pay through the nose for it," he said.
Similar fears were stoked in 2012 when Lakota tribes spent $9 million to purchase Pe' Sla, a sacred site in the west central Black Hills, from a non-native landowner. The site is crucial to Lakota cultural and spiritual beliefs. Stainbrook said he had hoped the Pe' Sla purchase was a one-off situation.
While he agreed that Depp has good intentions, Stainbrook said Depp's best approach would have been to privately offer a contribution to the Oglala and ask them how they could best use the money.
Instead of 80 acres, he said, the Oglala could use $4.9 million to buy thousands of acres of reservation land from non-natives.
"There's plenty of land not in Indian ownership that they could have used," he said.
Czywczynski, who lives in Rapid City, didn't return repeated calls on Thursday, but he told the Journal on Tuesday, before Depp's offer, that he was in negotiations to sell the land to one of two anonymous parties on the West Coast.
Czywczynski first put the land up for private sale on May 1, but offered the Oglala Sioux first right of purchase in February. The tribe rejected the offer because they didn't have the money and they were morally opposed to Czywczynski's high price.
Czywczynski has argued that the price is justified because of the tourism potential of the land and because it compensates him for property damage he suffered during protests in 1973. In that incident, drawing national media attention, Native American activists occupied land at Wounded Knee for 71 days, trading gunfire with a swarm of federal agents.
Czywczynski bought the land from a non-native couple in 1968. The couple purchased it from Lakota owners in 1930.