Johnny Depp Wants To Buy Wounded Knee. But Why Was It Sold In The First Place?

Depp has indicated his intention to purchase Wounded Knee, South Dakota -- the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.
By @FrederickReese |
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    In a June 6 Daily Mail article, actor Johnny Depp made an offhand comment about his decision to play the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto, in his new film.

    “So when I got the opportunity to play Tonto, I wanted to play him as a warrior with great dignity and great integrity and at the same time with a sense of humor about the White man and all the things they do,” Depp said. “It’s my way of trying to give back, because of the way that they have been mistreated in cinema. What they teach you, certainly in American schools, is mostly a lie. Look at Andrew Jackson, who is celebrated as one of the great soldiers and presidents.”

    “His face is on the $20 bill, and that p***** me off because he was a cold-blooded, killing machine who murdered countless Indians,” Depp continued. “Abraham Lincoln’s face is on the penny, the smallest denomination of money you can have in the States. So the Great Emancipator was put on the least amount of money and Andrew Jackson’s face is on the $20 bill. What does that say?”

    Depp, who is fiercely proud of his Native American ancestry, has indicated his intention to purchase Wounded Knee, South Dakota — the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 and the last known burial site of Oglala Lakota Chief Tȟašúŋke Witkó, translated as, “His Horse is Crazy” or “Crazy Horse.”

    “It’s very sacred ground and many atrocities were committed against the Sioux there,” Depp said. “And in the 1970s there was a stand-off between the feds and the people who should own that land. This historical land is so important to the Sioux culture and all I want to do is buy it and give it back. Why doesn’t the government do that?”


    Allotment and the ‘Americanization’ of the tribes

    Since May 1, the two 40-acre tracts in question have been on the selling block for a price of $4.9 million. They are currently open for sale to any buyer, including a commercial developer — despite the insistence of the owner, James Czywczynski of Rapid City, S. D., that he is only interested in selling to a buyer who will return the land to the Oglala Sioux. The land has an assessed value of $14,000.

    The land came into private hands due to federal policy known as allotment that was in place during the late 19th century and early 20th century. At the time, the federal government was eager to “Americanize” newly enfranchised Native Americans. The prevailing theory was that if the government encouraged private land ownership among Indians, it would weaken the sovereignty of the individual tribal governments and weaken tribal identity — particularly considering that non-Indians would be allowed to purchase land.

    Under that Dawes Act, and later amended under the Burke Act, the president was authorized to survey and divide Native American tribal lands for private ownership. Lands deemed necessary for Native Americans were reserved to American Indian buyers, while “excess land” was available to anyone. Wounded Knee was marked as “excess land.”

    This was done to correct the “Indian problem.” As the West was being developed, settlers increasingly ran afoul of the tribes, which believed the settlers were infringing on their lands. Fearing that this conflict of cultures could never be resolved, American troops forced the Indians from their traditional homes and onto reserved lands — or “reservations” — that were typically deemed not suitable for White settlement. These reservations were allowed free rule and the promise of non-intrusion, with the exception of treaty negotiation.

    As the new reservations developed militias to protect themselves, formed unique governments, and engaged in intergovernmental trade, a growing sense that the “Indian Way” — which rejected European and American standards in favor of a tightly knitted extended family clan that supports its own traditions, cultures and languages — was “uncivilized” started to form. By the 1880s, the general consensus of the nation’s decision-makers was that the collapsing Indian heritage and the assimilation of Indians was a top priority.

    The Dawes Act sought to break up the idea of the tribe as a tangible social unit, encourage individuals to to take personal initiative rather than focus on communal interests, reduce the federal government’s cost of supporting Native governments, and secure “non-essential” Indian lands for White settlers for profit. The payoff for any Native American who broke from his tribe and embraced “Americanism” was automatic American citizenship.

    The tragedies of Wounded Knee

    For tribes, the net result was the loss of 90 million acres of land. In 1881, Sen. Henry Teller (R-Colo.) openly denounced the act, saying that it was basically an attempt “to get at the Indian lands and open them up to settlement. The provisions for the apparent benefit of the Indians are but the pretext to get at his lands and occupy them….If this were done in the name of Greed, it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of Humanity…is infinitely worse.”

    This act was motivated by the Indian wars — a series of skirmishes and battles against various tribes from 1775 to 1924. One of the most infamous episodes was the massacre at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890. While escorting a Lakota band of warriors back to their reservation, the 7th Cavalry Regiment opened fire on unarmed men, women and children over a scuffle with a deaf man who was unwilling to part with his beloved rifle without explanation. Between 150 and 300 Native Americans died, compared to the 31 soldiers who died mostly, it is now believed, from friendly fire. Twenty soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, for their actions at Wounded Knee.

    Shortly before President Franklin D. Roosevelt effectively repealed the Dawes Act with the U.S. Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Wounded Knee was purchased by Clive Gildersleeve of Minnesota. Initially, a small general store known as the Wounded Knee Battle Field Trading Post was set up on the land. Although the area became a makeshift tourist trap, the relationship between the Gildersleeves and the Oglala Nation was comfortable.

    In 1968, speculators sought to expand the tourist-trap potential of the area. Rapid City, S.D., speculators pitched plans for a massive marble monument to be built on the site in honor of the massacre victims. It was later revealed that a massive motel and restaurant complex was also part of the plan. The plan for the monument was to exhume the massacre victims and re-entomb them in the memorial’s crypt, surrounded by crossed cavalry sabers.

    Attempts to block the speculators’ purchase of the land stopped the building of the memorial, but it didn’t stop the Gildersleeve family from selling their land to the Czywczynski group. It is now felt that Czywczynski is trying to win some of the fortune promised to him when he bought the land.

    “I really don’t care who buys it and donates it to the Oglala Sioux Tribe as long as somebody does it,” Czywcynski said. “Johnny Depp has a lot of money. He could probably raise this money in a heartbeat. So I was kind of glad to see some national and international exposure.”

    “Right now we have several possible donors,” he added. “There is someone on the West Coast… We are also working with another group and now this has come up. So there are three or four groups right now. I guess whoever comes up with the money first is going to be the winner.”

    The Oglala Nation, like most of the Upper Great Plains tribes, is among the poorest in the nation and cannot afford to buy the land. In the 1970s, the federal government, in a plan spearheaded by former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), attempted to take over the property and turn it into a national monument under Oglala management and ownership. This was blocked by the Wounded Knee Survivors Association, who felt that the land and the memory of their honored dead should not be exploited for money.

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