The potential sale of one of the most historically notorious sites in South Dakota history could come with the state's biggest caveat: buy Wounded Knee and plan to build there, and face the wrath of protesters.
That message is being sent by Native American activists as a Rapid City man prepares to sell a 40-acre parcel at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. The property, located in the heart of the Pine Ridge Reservation, is in the vicinity of where 300 Native Americans were killed by the U.S. military on Dec. 29, 1890.
Tensions have been simmering in Indian Country ever since the landowner, James Czywczynski, 75, announced his plan to sell the land two months ago. Czywczynski offered to sell the parcel, and another in Porcupine Butte, to the Oglala Lakota Nation for $4.9 million dollars. If they didn't buy before May 1, he warned, he would sell to the highest private bidder.
Tribal officials have consistently scorned the price and deadline, which they view as bordering on extortion. The properties have a combined value of about $14,000, according to an appraisal by Shannon County.
Now, with the May 1 deadline only days away and no tribal deal in sight, some Lakota are offering their own warning to Czywczynski:
"This is our backyard; this is our homeland," said Garfield Steele, a tribal representative. "This has historical value for our people, not to any non-Indian. We will fight to keep it, as is, by all means."
Steele said that opposition could include protests to stop the land from being converted into a tourist attraction. Many Lakota oppose commercial development because they see it as an exploitation of a tragedy.
The land is currently desolate prairie, but it formerly hosted a trading post and several houses owned by Czywczynski before they were burned down during a protest by Native Americans in 1973.
Don Cuny, 61, a member of the American Indian Movement and a protester in 1973, pledged to stage a sit-in if the land was developed. "I'm totally against it," he said. "And I know I'm not the only one."
Czywczynski's offer, and the controversy surrounding it, has attracted national and international attention. Over the past month, he has conducted interviews with the New York Times, the BBC, Al Jazeera, and the Australian Broadcasting Company.
Asked on Friday whether he was concerned about protests, Czywczynski was nonchalant. "Let them protest," he said Friday. "I don't care."
Czywczynski reiterated that he believed the tribe had ample money to meet his $4.9 million list price.
He said that the price was fair given the potential for the tribe to convert it into a commercial venture. Before his trading post was burned down in 1973, he said, it was a profitable endeavor that attracted busloads of tourists each week.
"They just wanted to see Indian land, the mass grave, they wanted to buy arts and crafts," he said. "A lot of people are just interested in Indians and Indian culture."
Czywczynski said he has been contacted by five parties who want to purchase his parcel: Two California investment groups, an overseas investor, an American who offered $1 million in cash, and a group in Wall that wants to raise grant money to buy the land and gift it to the Lakota.
Czywczynski said he told each party that he won't consider any offers until after May 1. He also said he would only sell the Wounded Knee parcel and the other parcel, located at Porcupine Butte, as a package deal and for no less than $4.9 million.
Legal action possible?
Beyond protests, some Lakota hope to stop the sale by different means. Nathan Blindman, a descendant of one of the survivors of the 1890 massacre, wants to take it to the courts.
Blindman said the Bureau of Indian Affairs made a mistake when it approved the original sale of land from its Lakota owners to a non-native couple in 1930. That couple, the Gildersleeve family, sold the property to Czywczynski in 1968.
The agency is required to approve sales of Indian land to private buyers. Blindman, pointing to documents from the 1930 sale, said that the agency neglected to consider the property's historical value and didn't consult tribal leaders.
"It's always been suspicious how part of the Wounded Knee Massacre site fell into the hands of non-Indians," he said. "That's always been a question."
He said the federal government should step in to return the land to the Lakota.
But Frank Pommersheim, a law professor at the University of South Dakota, said the courts are unlikely to be convinced by that argument.
Pommersheim said if the Bureau of Indian Affairs incorrectly appraised the value of the property in 1930, it was likely that too much time had passed to challenge it under the statute of limitations.
"Even assuming that to be true, it's difficult to know what could be done in the year 2013," he said.
Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, based in Minnesota, also believes that Blindman's legal challenge would be a long shot.
However, he said he believes the commercial potential of the property has been heavily over-hyped. He doubts that Czywczynski will ever get the $4.9 million he is seeking.
"He's done everything he can to pitch the thing and keep the media hype up," he said. "Don't get me wrong, Wounded Knee is an important site for Lakota people, at the same time, lets get real, it's not as though this is a developable property in any significant way."
Fears were high that a buyer would convert the land into a casino or hotel. But Stainbrook said, given the site's proximity to a mass burial, he just couldn't see it.
"If someone's going to make a Disneyland type of attraction, what's the theme going to be?" he said. "I'm trying to envision who would be so crass to make much of a tourist attraction."