As It Happens

Wounded Knee Massacre artifacts — once touted as 'a curiosity' — returned to Lakota Sioux 

The return of artifacts from the Wounded Knee Massacre will help Lakota Sioux elders start to heal from their trauma, and give young people a chance to learn about their history, says Kevin Killer.

‘I hope it's a beginning of a path of healing,’ says Oglala Sioux Tribe president

A man and a woman stand on either end of a small table looking at an assortment of artifacts. Behind the man is a set-up for a photo-shoot.
Leola One Feather, right, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, talks with Jeffrey Not Help Him, left, also an Oglala Sioux tribe member, while Native American artifacts are photographed on July 19, 2022, at the Founders Museum in Barre, Mass. (Philip Marcelo/The Associated Press)

The return of artifacts from the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota will help Lakota Sioux elders start to heal from their trauma, and give young people a chance to learn about their history, says Kevin Killer.

A Massachusetts museum says it will return about 150 Sioux items, some of which are believed to have a direct link to the 1890 massacre in which U.S. soldiers killed more than 250 Lakota men, women and children.

"I hope it's a beginning of a path of healing," Killer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, told As It Happens Nil Köksal. 

The items — which had been kept at the Founders Museum in Barre, Mass., for more than a century — include weapons, pipes, moccasins, arrows and clothing. 

Their return is part of a broader effort by the museum to repatriate its Native American collection, and the museum will remain closed to the public until that process is complete. 

"This is not our history of Barre. This is the Lakota Sioux's history, and we should honour the Lakota Sioux and what they desire," Ann Meilus, president of the museum's board of directors, said in a news conference.

Changing narratives of history 

On Dec. 29, 1890, U.S. Calvary troops opened fire at a camp on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, near Wounded Knee Creek, killing more than 250 people and wounding more than 50. Twenty-five soldiers were also killed.

"It was a pretty sad day, I think, in a lot of people's histories, especially our nations," Killer said.

It was one of the deadliest massacres in U.S. history. But for generations, it was celebrated as a victory for the U.S. army, and its artifacts were paraded around the country and the world as curiosities in travelling shows and museums.

The return of the artifacts, Killer said, reflects society's changing narratives about Indigenous history.

A wooden cross in a field of snow and yellow grass. White beads are wrapped around its centre, and pink flowers lay at its base.
This Feb. 7, 2012, photo shows a cross on a grave at the Wounded Knee National Historic landmark in South Dakota. (Rapid City Journal/The Associated Press)

At the time, the U.S. referred to the incident not as a massacre — but as a battle. The soldiers had been sent to disarm the Lakota, some of whom had been participating in a religious ceremony called the Ghost Dance, which white settlers saw as a threat and a precursor to war.

"Media was really irresponsible, too," Killer said. "They were actually drumming up some of this discussion and the fever for war."

In the end, 20 of the soldiers involved were awarded the Medal of Honor, the U.S.'s highest military distinction.

Artifacts from the grisly event are scattered around the U.S. and the world, at various museums. Those in Barre were acquired from Frank Root, a 19th-century travelling shoe salesman who collected the items on his journeys, and once had a road show that rivalled P.T. Barnum's extravaganzas, Meilus said.

Root is believed to have taken some the its from the dead at Wounded Knee when he was hired to clear the field, reports Native News Online, citing the museum's records. 

"In the early 1900s it was almost a curiosity/circus act/something to gaze at. And now ... we're in a different time in the 2020s," Killer said.

"It's just the pendulum of time, you know, basically swinging back the other way and saying, OK, how do we honour and recognize the history of a lot of our communities?"

Tens of thousands of stolen artifacts

The items being returned are just a tiny fraction of an estimated 870,000 Native American artifacts — including nearly 110,000 human remains — in the possession of the U.S.'s most prestigious colleges, museums and even the federal government.

All of these items, Killer says, should be returned under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

He says his tribe has already been in touch with institutions in California and Switzerland about organizing the return of other artifacts.

A man, visible from the chest up, stands outside in a suit and tie and frowns as he looks over his shoulder. His long black hair is tied back. Behind him is a crowd of people, but they're out of focus.
Kevin Killer, pictured here in 2017, is the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. (James Nord/The Associated Press)

The Founder Museum items are due to be formally handed over at a ceremony on Nov. 5.

Wendell Yellow Bull, a descendant of Wounded Knee victim Joseph Horn Cloud, said they will be stored at Oglala Lakota College until tribal leaders decide what to do with them.

"Upon the return of the items, there will be a mass meeting and a very meticulous discussion on how and what we're going to do with the items," he said. 

"Most of all, there are items from the massacre site, so a lot of preparations and ceremonies must take place in order for us to proceed forward."

Killer hopes the ceremony will be beneficial for elders and youth, alike.

"I think for the older generation, it's going to be a little bit harder because, you know, over their lifetime, they've had to endure so much more than our generation," he said.

In both Canada and the U.S., Indigenous populations are growing, which means there are a lot of young people. The median age for the Oglála Lakhóta nation, he said, is about 25.

"I think it's a learning opportunity for [youth], but also a way to see that, you know, the narratives that have been told about us are changing, and it's changing in their lifetime," he said.

He says the return of the items is an answer to prayer his ancestors made more than a century ago.

"That is something that we believe deeply — that, you know, when somebody says a prayer about something, it sets an intention for not only their generation, but future generations to fulfil."

With files from The Associated Press. Interview with Kevin Killer produced by Devin Nguyen.

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