UPDATED 1:10 P.M. Actor Johnny Depp, who plays Tonto in the recently released movie “The Lone Ranger,” plans to buy land at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre in South Dakota and give it back to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, a tribal official said Wednesday.
“He would like to make that offer if we’re willing,” President Bryan Brewer said. "This is a great thing that is happening.”
Brewer said he got a call Wednesday from a representative for Depp, who is in England, telling him the actor wanted to make an offer on a 40-acre piece of land near the Wounded Knee burial ground on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Land owner James Czywczynski, 76, has said he wants $3.9 million for that parcel where soldiers from the Seventh Cavalry killed 300 Lakota men, women and children in 1890, and an additional $1 million for a 40-acre parcel in Porcupine Butte. Czywczynski has said he will only sell the parcels as a package deal.
Brewer said the tribe’s leaders must decide whether they want Depp to make the offer, considering it means paying a vastly inflated price for the land. Shannon County has appraised the parcels at a combined value of $14,000. Czywczynski's $4.9 million price tag has angered many in the Native American community who view it as bordering on extortion.
“We just hate to see that guy get rich off us,” Brewer said.
Toni Red Cloud, a spokeswoman for Brewer's office, said Thursday that his office had met that morning with descendants of the survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre to discuss the offer. The tribe now plans to set up a meeting with Czywczynski.
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.
Garfield Steele, a council representative for the Wounded Knee district, said Thursday that he was speechless after hearing of Depp's offer.
"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," he said.
Asked whether Steele was concerned that purchasing the land might raise the price on other privately-owned sites that are sacred to natives, Steele said he was unfazed.
He said Czywczynski's inflated price was likely inspired by the private sale of Pe' Sla, a sacred site in the west central Black Hills, to the Lakota for $9 million in 2012. Pe' Sla is a crucial site in Lakota mythology.
"He knew he puts any price tag on that and we would come crawling," he said.
But Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, based in Minnesota, isn't so sure about that comparison.
"This is a piece of land that has some value, right? On the other hand, it certainly doesn't have the value of Pe' Sla for Indian people. And that was a rarity," he said. "And I was hoping it was going to stay a rarity in some ways. 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."
Stainbrook said while Depp has good intentions, the 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 of land, 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, couldn't be reached for comment on Thursday morning, but he told the Journal on Tuesday, before Depp's offer to the tribe, 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.