An electrical fire has destroyed the 10-year-old Wounded Knee Museum in Wall, dedicated to the 1890 massacre on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The building is 80 percent wiped out, and the 30 exhibits inside the 2,600-square-foot structure are a total loss after the fire Sunday night.
"It's like a parent losing a child, that is how we are feeling right now," Steve Wyant, the museum co-founder, said Thursday.
Wyant couldn't put an estimate on the building and museum's cost. He expects a full report from fire officials to detail the cause more specifically.
Opened in 2003 off Interstate 90, Wyant said he created the museum "to promote tolerance and understanding and share the story of what occurred at the Wounded Knee Massacre."
Wall fire officials determined that faulty wiring beneath the floor started the blaze long after visitors and Wyant were gone for the day, he said.
The museum detailed the events of Dec. 29, 1890, when the U.S. Army demanded the surrender from the Lakota. Amid the tension, a shot rang out. The soldiers opened fire, killing up to 300 men, women and children. Some died instantly, but others may have died from hypothermia.
Wyant, 67, lives in Fort Collins, Colo., and has no Native American heritage but found inspiration for the museum after visiting the site and reading the telling account of the massacre in the book "The Politics of Hallowed Ground," written by Rapid City attorney Mario Gonzalez.
"It was more a learning of what occurred and then realizing nobody was going to provide a venue to share the story," he said.
Wyant hired contractors for the building, writers, researchers and graphic designers for the exhibits. He charged a $5 admission and regularly let school children in at no cost. He never made enough money to cover expenses, nor did he expect he would, relying instead on donations and fundraising. He covered the rest out of his own pocket.
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"If you didn't see it, it was a beautiful thing to see," he said.
About 7,000 to 8,000 people visited each year between May and October. This year had been the best year yet, with visitor numbers up 40 percent in August, he said.
"This year was the most excited I have seen him and heard him; he was really upbeat about this year," said Daryl No Heart, Wyant's friend who with his wife did printing and graphic design for the museum. "There is so much work he put into this. God, I can't believe that it would end. He was in high spirits and looking forward to moving on with the museum and adding more things."
No Heart remembers Wyant coming to him with his idea, and it was clear he had a "mountain to climb."
"We worked with Steve and we had seen what he was doing, and my first impression was why would a white man be doing that?" No Heart said. "We thought he wouldn't have a chance, but he was pretty stubborn."
Wyant remembers days in the first year when one or two people would visit on a given day.
"When we opened in 2003, we didn't know if anyone would show up," he said.
Though too emotional to make any decisions about future plans, he said his resolve remains.
"We are more determined and more passionate than ever to deliver the story to the world."