When Julian Brown Eyes visited the gravesite at Wounded Knee — the burial ground of more than 100 Sioux who were massacred over a century ago — he saw dilapidated brick pillars guarding the entrance to the small, remote cemetery.
So Brown Eyes, who operates Competitive Masonry on the north side of Rapid City, decided to restore the six-foot-tall, 60-year-old brick pillars.
“We just went there out of respect for those that sacrificed their lives, and we just thought we should give back that way,” he said. “I think a lot of people lost contact with what really happened there. It was tragic.”
The Wounded Knee site contains the remains of 146 Native Americans who were killed by U.S. soldiers on Dec. 29, 1890. That massacre is considered the last major conflict between U.S. troops and Plains Native Americans.
No one knows exactly how many people died at Wounded Knee, as family members likely took away many bodies, said Craig Howe, director of the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies in Martin. The death toll is likely far higher than 146 and most estimate 300 people were killed there, he said.
“A lot of people hold that gravesite in reverence,” Howe said. “It’s one of the critical points in Indian-white relations in United States history.”
Brown Eyes lives in Rapid City now, two hours away from Wounded Knee. He has 20 years of experience and a five-year-old business where he lays brick and stone for homes and small commercial projects. But the 38-year-old has family on the Pine Ridge Reservation and is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He feels like the gravesite is in his backyard.
“If you can help in your community, I think you should,” he said. “If you go outside and you see trash in your yard, pick it up.”
Brown Eyes and others donated $500 worth of brick and other materials for the renovation project. He and five employees spent two weeks in late January taking apart the six-foot brick pillars and putting them back together. The top half of one of the pillars had been destroyed — hit by a car, according to rumor — and the pillars had been hit by bullets, probably in the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, Brown Eyes said.
Ruben Garcia, Brown Eyes’ brother-in-law, lives in north Rapid City. He was part of the restoration team.
“It was very neat to be able to work on such a historical project,” he said. “I’d been down there before, but there’s a lot of history there that folks don’t know.”
The 1890 massacre came days after Sitting Rock police shot and killed Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief. The U.S. Army had surrounded a group of Sioux led by Chief Big Foot at Wounded Knee and demanded they surrender their weapons. A fight broke out and someone fired a shot, then Big Foot and his followers, including women and children, were shot.
The people killed at the site in 1890 were from the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux reservations, Howe said.
The site made history again in 1973 when leaders of the American Indian Movement holed up in a nearby Catholic church for 71 days in a standoff with FBI officials. The church mysteriously burned down around the time of the standoff, Howe said.
Now, a narrow dirt road leads to the restored archway, which is brick with a painted white pattern. Behind the archway, a chain-link fence surrounds the graveyard, which includes the mass grave and individual graves. A short pillar erected by Joseph Horn Cloud, a survivor of the 1890 massacre, lists names of those buried at the site.
The archway doesn’t look like new. Brown Eyes didn’t repair the metal arch connecting the two pillars, and there are two empty pedestals that used to hold statues of Mary and Joseph, which were stolen long ago. But Brown Eyes said he did all he could to give the pillars their original look.
“Just for us to be able to give back to our ancestors and do something is very moving,” he said. “It’s something that brings you back to where you came from.”
Contact Ruth Moon at 394-8415 or email@example.com.
[Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect two corrections. Sitting Bull was a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief and was shot and killed by Standing Rock police.]