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In South Dakota, debate over whether or not to burn items returned to Oglala Sioux by Mass. museum

Inside the Porcupine School gym on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on Dec. 29, 2022, photographs sit on top of sealed boxes containing items returned to the Oglala Lakota nation by the Founders Museum in Barre, Mass. The items are believed to have been taken off the bodies of people massacred at Wounded Knee in 1890.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Inside the Porcupine School gym on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on Dec. 29, 2022, photographs sit on top of sealed boxes containing items returned to the Oglala Lakota nation by the Founders Museum in Barre, Mass. The items are believed to have been taken off the bodies of people massacred at Wounded Knee in 1890.

Descendants of survivors of the massacre at Wounded Knee are in the midst of a heated discussion over what to do with items returned to the Oglala Sioux Tribe by the Founders Museum in Barre, Massachusetts.

The tribe believes the moccasins, pouches and other objects were taken off the bodies of their relatives who were killed during the 1890 massacre in South Dakota and ended up at the museum later that century.

One group of descendants wants to burn some items Friday morning, on the anniversary of the massacre, but others disagree.

Michael He Crow said his great grandfather, Jackson He Crow, survived the massacre at age 9. He said descendants have been meeting more than monthly, since the spring of 2022, to discuss what to do with the items.

He Crow said the majority want to put what can be burned into a fire, and store but not display other items, such as pipes which were used for prayers.

The belief is burning personal belongings of someone who died releases their spirit to the next world. He Crow said he is hopeful it will also heal a spiritual circle that was broken by the massacre.

"Bringing those objects back and reconnecting them with their spirits helps mend that circle and brings hope back, that things will change for better," He Crow said.

But Calvin Jasper Spotted Elk, who also said he is a a descendant, filed a request for an emergency injunction in tribal court to stop the burning. According to the filing, preserving the items "safeguards the cultural heritage of the community." The tribal court has not confirmed the status of the request.

"I want them not destroyed," Spotted Elk said about the objects. "These come from our ancestors so they should not be disrespected in that way."

Spotted Elk is asking for more time to figure out if any items belong to descendants who are still alive, and to return them.

Manny Iron Hawk, of the HAWK 1890 survivors association, said he also wants to return items to descendants of people killed at Wounded Knee. HAWK stands for Heartbeat at Wounded Knee.

The chair of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Ryman LeBeau, issued a statement on December 28, 2023, that said "we ask that any proposal to burn the artifacts be halted and we proposes that a joint meeting between the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and our Wounded Knee survivors associations be held in the coming days" to discuss plans concerning the artifacts.

Chief Henry Red Cloud traveled to Barre, Massachusetts, on April 6, 2022, along with Manny and Renee Iron Hawk, to ask for the return of the items. He said he would like the objects put in a "memorial museum," that is climate-controlled and near the site of the massacre.

"To build the awareness" he said, "to educate people from all walks of life on what the Oglala Lakota, the Oceti Sakowin, the seven tribes have gone through, since the Western travelers came in."

Elizabeth Martin, clerk of the Barre Museum Association, said she would also like the items placed in a museum so they can be seen.

On the anniversary of the massacre last year, tribal members gently placed seven long boxes containing more than 100 items from the Barre museum, on the mass grave at Wounded Knee. They burned sage, filled a sacred pipe and said prayers in Lakota.

"These articles were taken from our ancestors. And we need to remember the pain they suffered," the president of the tribe, Frank Star Comes Out, said at the memorial. "It's been over 100 years since these articles were last here. And now they're home."

Since then, the items have been stored at the Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota. The boxes were opened twice this past year, with prayers, according to He Crow.

It's not clear yet what will happen to the objects Friday.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.