A decision to sell 40 acres of land near the site of two of South Dakota’s most historically notorious events has opened old wounds on the Pine Ridge reservation.
James Czywczynski of Rapid City wants $3.9 million for the property that sits next to the Wounded Knee memorial site where an estimated 150 Native Americans are buried after being gunned down by members of the 7th Cavalry Regiment on Dec. 29, 1890.
Elected tribal officials said the Oglala Sioux Tribe is interested in purchasing what is considered sacred ground to the tribe but not at a price that far exceeds its actual value.
"I think the tribe should take all necessary action to purchase the land but at a reasonable price. I understand it's a historic site but that shouldn't be a means to take the tribe for a huge amount,” said Garfield Steele, who represents the Wounded Knee District on the tribal council.
Kevin Yellow Bird Steele, who also represents Wounded Knee, said the property is inflated to the point of insult and is an attempted exploitation of a dark chapter in U.S. history.
"As a representative of Wounded Knee District, I'm totally appalled," he said.
According to Shannon County records, the property has an appraised value of $7,000.
Czywczynski, however, cites a second event that brought national attention to Wounded Knee when explaining his asking price for a piece of property in a rural outpost on the reservation.
The asking price, he said, includes compensation for the damage done to his property in 1973 when the American Indian Movement and others occupied the community of Wounded Knee for 71 days in a violent standoff that drew national attention.
"They burned my home," Czywczynski, 74, said. "They burned my trading post. They burned my museum. They burned three cabins I had. They wrecked and stole three of my vehicles."
It was a devastating end to a growing family business, he said.
Czywczynski said he was working as an accountant in Rapid City when he purchased the land in 1968 from the Gildersleeve family.
"I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to get into private enterprise," he said.
After moving his family to the property and expanding a trading post and museum there, Czywczynski said as many as five busloads of tourists, domestic and international, would visit each week.
That all began to change on Feb. 27, 1973, when activists occupied the land, protesting what they said were long-standing treaty breaches by the federal government.
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Czywczynski and his family were returning from a basketball game when they were stopped by U.S. Marshals who had cordoned off the area. It was the beginning of the end for their enterprise, they would realize later.
"We thought it would be over tomorrow and tomorrow never came," he said. "71 days later it came."
Czywczynsk said he received a $55,000 insurance payout, a paltry sum compared to his losses. He would rebuild his life in Rapid City where he owned and operated a mobile home park until he sold it in 2000 and retired.
The parcel near Wounded Knee has remained undeveloped for the past 40 years.
Czywczynski said he has offered to sell the land to the tribe since it was destroyed in 1973. But the tribe has consistently rejected his $3.9 million asking price.
In December, he gave the tribe an ultimatum: Buy it or watch it fall into the hands of a private investor.
The tribe now has until May 1 to accept his offer or he will look for other suitors. Tribal officials say they are now doing their own appraisal of the property.
Czywczynski is also offering a 40-acre parcel on Porcupine Butte for $1 million. He said he is building a website to market both parcels to national and international bidders.
He adds that he has the utmost respect for the Wounded Knee burial site and the Lakota people. He would prefer the tribe develop his parcel into a tourist attraction rather than leave it at the mercy of an unknown entity.
"Say you buy it, you could do anything with it. You could set up apartments or a condominium or a casino; you could do anything of that nature," he said. "But it should be done correctly — the hallowed ground where these people died."
But Steele said if Czywczynski's concerns are genuine he would donate the land to the tribe or sell it at a reasonable price.
As it stands, he said, Czywczynski is simply extorting the tribe.
"We don't want no kind of development with that area," he said. "We don't want somebody to purchase it and get rich off it."
[This story has been changed to reflect a correction. A pair of FBI agents died in a separate incident at Wounded Knee in 1975.]