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Barre Museum Returns Items Looted from Wounded Knee

Violet Catches, a Cheyenne River Lakota grandmother and direct descendant of Leon Holy, a survivor of the massacre at Wounded Knee, checks over the list of items to be returned to the Lakota by the Founders Museum in Barre, on November 5th, 2022

By David Detmold / photos by Suzanne Webber

The ancestors have gone home.

That is the word from the town of Barre, where on Saturday, November 5, at 7 o’clock in the evening, under a waxing moon, eleven archival boxes were loaded into the back of a black Suburban while the smell of burning sage and the keening cries of Lakota grandmother Violet Catches rose upwards toward the heavens.

Inside those boxes, according to Aaron Miller, associate curator and NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) coordinator at the Mt Holyoke College Art Museum in South Hadley, were approximately 150 items considered sacred by the Lakota. They had been kept in the private Founders Museum on the second floor of the Woods Memorial Library, just off the Barre town common, for the past 130 years. Shortly, they would begin their long journey back to South Dakota, with Cedric Broken Nose at the wheel. He is a direct descendant of Chief Spotted Elk, who led the band of Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota who died in the massacre at Wounded Knee.

This summer, when the Barre Museum Association board decided to return these sacred objects to their tribes of origin they called in Miller, who has a PhD in archeology from Memorial University in Newfoundland, to consult with tribal representatives and guide the board through the process of repatriating of the artifacts, eight of which were clearly labelled as originating from the killing field at Wounded Knee. Miller said many of the unlabeled items are probably associated with the massacre as well.

On December 29, 1890, at the small village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, hundreds of disarmed Lakota, camped under a white flag of truce, were surrounded by troops of the U.S. 7th Cavalry, under Col. James Forsyth, and slaughtered in a rain of exploding shells and rifle fire. Their bodies were left lying in the snow for three days.

Local ranchers were hired by the army to clear the killing field and haul the bodies to a nearby hill for mass burial. Some, including a teamster by the name of Nealy Williams, took the opportunity to strip the bodies of clothing and personal belongings to sell as curiosities, as mementos of the massacre. A traveling shoe salesman from Barre by the name of Frank Root reportedly purchased a number of these artifacts from Williams. According to contemporaneous newspaper accounts, he brought his collection back home and displayed them in Eastern cities including Boston before donating them to the Founders Museum in Barre in 1892.

Among the items returned on Saturday were a Ghost Shirt (a shirt worn by practitioners of the Ghost Dance movement) with a bullet hole through the sternum, beaded necklaces, moccasins, children’s dolls, small charms known as cekpognaka made from babies’ umbilical cords, a dozen pipes fashioned with stone bowls and wooden stems, a bow, an ax head, and the empty scabbard of a knife.

Miller referred to all 150 items collectively as “ancestors,” adopting terminology used by the Lakota and other tribes in reference to clothing worn and items carried by people who may have died violently.

“This is a really important collection culturally to this community,” said Miller, referencing the Lakota. “Also, these are the sort of things many museums hang onto. Barre decided to honor the claim and return the objects,” even though the National NGPRA Program recently determined that the privately owned museum was not subject to NAGPRA requirements since it does not receive federal funding. “What folks here have decided,” said Miller, “will influence a lot of other museum collections.”

At the Ruggles Lane Elementary School, waiting for a formal repatriation ceremony to begin at 1 pm, Barre selectboard member John Dixson said, “I’m really proud of what this town is doing. But at the same time, it’s really hard to reconcile this with the long history of wrong that has been done.”

Repatriation Ceremony

More than 250 people filled the gymnasium, with nearly equal proportions of local townspeople and Indigenous people. Many came from South Dakota, but there was solid representation from the central Massachusetts bands of the Nipmuc, the Mashpee Wampanoag, and from the Native American Program at Harvard, which sent a busload of students and faculty.

Wendell Yellow Bull, a descendant of Wounded Knee survivor Joseph Horn Cloud, whose parents and three other family members died in the massacre, stood at the podium and said, “Welcome to a great historical event. It is really a positive day.”

Following welcoming prayers from spiritual leader Richard Broken Nose, Lakota historian Richard Moves Camp, said, “I express my gratitude to the people of Massachusetts and Indigenous tribes of this land. Today we gather for a major step toward healing. We are the descendants of the people whose lives were taken. We pray that there will be healing. This is a historical moment. Today we will pray for the future generations, for healing.”

Moves Camps said the Lakota do not often display their sacred pipes in public, but today they would make an exception. Cedric Broken Nose knelt in front of the podium and filled the bowl of a chanupa, a sacred pipe, and lit sage in an abalone shell.

Moves Camps said, “We are the Lakota Nation. We are Indigenous People. Sometime in 1890, some of our people… they killed. They tried to kill us, but our spirit is still here. All the way to the East Coast, all the way out to the West Coast, all the way up to the border of Canada, all the way down to Mexico, we are the center of the universe, the center of the People. We still have our (White Buffalo) Calf Woman Pipe, back to Cheyenne River. We’re survivors. I shake hands with you and my heart is open to you.”

The Lakota bowed their heads in silence as Broken Nose held the stem of the pipe skyward.

“Thank all of you for coming here today,” said Moves Camp. “Indigenous Nations in the area, thank you for welcoming us to your land, to retrieve our relatives who were taken from us over 130 years ago, that their spirits may be at peace. We carry inter-generational pain. But today, we pray there will be a closure, and then a new generation of all people walking together.”

He beat a drum and sang a welcoming song. Women in all corners of the room raised their voices in loud tremolos. Burning sage was carried along the aisles.

Moves Camp said, “At the time that the massacre happened, they were doing the Ghost Dance to bring their relatives and the buffalo back. For them, I’ll be singing this song.”

After that, state senator Anne Gobi rose to the microphone. “I welcome you,” she said, turning toward the Lakota visitors. “Thank you for your patience and your understanding. Today, here in the heart of the Commonwealth, the little town of Barre will lead the way. As Martin Luther King said, ‘There is never a wrong time to do the right thing.’”

Cheryll Toney Holley, chief of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc, stood next. “I’m here to welcome you, our relatives, to our territory. Our people are happy that these remains are being returned. We will continue to work to bring home all the ancestors held hostage in museums, libraries, classrooms and basements, freeing them from their prisons and putting their spirits to rest.”

In July, the Associated Press reported that despite the passage of the 1990 NAGPRA law requiring federally funded institutions to return to their tribes of origin Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony at least 870,000 Native American artifacts – including nearly 110,000 human remains – are still held by colleges, universities, museums and similar institutions. In May, the Harvard Crimson leaked a report from a university review committee claiming that Harvard’s Peabody Museum still holds approximately 7,000 Indigenous human remains.

Museum board president Ann Melius said, “Our little town of Barre has a long history of being at the center of peace.” She told the story of Quock Walker, an enslaved African American man who filed suit in 1781 against his abusive ‘owner,’ a Barre man named Nathaniel Jennison, for assault and battery after Jennison beat him for leaving his farm to seek his freedom. Walker cited a clause in the newly adopted Massachusetts constitution that “all men are born free and equal.” His successful lawsuit laid the groundwork for the formal abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

“Today we continue,” the tradition, said Melius, “by bringing peace to the ancestors and relatives of the Lakota. It is my great honor to return these artifacts. Our government did a great wrong to the Lakota people. I hope that by returning these artifacts the healing may begin.”

Oglala Sioux Tribe president Kevin Killer said, “You are bearing witness to history. For our nation, this has been a long time coming. This is an example to different societies all throughout the United States. When we embrace this kind of healing, we allow healing for all kinds of people.” He thanked Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, in absentia, for her efforts to pass the Remove the Stain Act, a bill to rescind the 20 Medals of Honor awarded to soldiers for “gallantry beyond the call of duty” at Wounded Knee. Then he acknowledged the Oglala Lakota Chapter of the International Indigenous Youth Council, led by Defend the Water, from the town of Manderson, who had traveled to Barre with a contingent of other young activists.

Bearing Witness to History

“They will carry the learning for three generations,” said Killer. “They will have the story to tell of what happened here today. This is how positive change happens.”

He invited Michael He Crow, another direct descendant of Chief Spotted Elk, and Cedric Broken Nose to speak next.

He Crow said Spotted Elk “was well known for his diplomatic activity. They called him a peace chief because he settled conflicts among the People. He Crow noted, “He was living in a log cabin, with a garden; he was living in the way white people wanted him to live, and he was not the only one.”

Chief Spotted Elk, in the middle of the bitter winter of 1890, led a band of some 300 Miniconjou, more than a third of them women and children, along with 38 Hunkpapa Lakota who had joined them after fleeing from Standing Rock following the assassination of Tatanka Iyatoke (Sitting Bull) on December 15th of that year. Under a white flag, Spotted Elk’s band traveled 250 miles from Takini, on Cherry Creek on the Cheyenne River Reservation, over the Badlands to seek refuge from pursuing soldiers with Chief Red Cloud on Pine Ridge.

But a detachment of the 7th Cavalry under Major Samuel Whitside found them on the trail at Porcupine about a dozen miles from their destination. Spotted Elk immediately surrendered to Whitside. His band carried almost no weapons and had no intention of fighting. Whitside marched them five miles south to Wounded Knee Creek, where Colonel James Forsyth and his troops met them, bringing the number of 7th Cavalry on the scene to about 500 men.

Spotted Elk was mortally ill with pneumonia, coughing blood from his lungs. Col. Forsyth detailed an army doctor to treat him, and provided him with a warmed tent to sleep in that night. In the morning, Spotted Elk’s band voluntarily surrendered their meager supply of weapons: 38 rifles, a few knives.

Shortly thereafter, whatever the precipitating cause (some claimed to have heard a gunshot from the Lakota camp when soldiers tried to wrest a gun away from a deaf Lakota man named Black Coyote, who did not understand the order to hand over his rifle given to him English) Forsyth’s troops opened fire on the Lakota from three directions, including with rapid firing Hotchkiss guns mounted on a nearby hill.

During the ensuing mass slaughter, the leaders in the center of the camp, including Spotted Elk, were among the first to die.

He Crow said his grandfather, nine years old at the time, escaped through a ravine, running west, dragging his wounded mother with him on a travois. They found relatives at the village of Oglala, 30 miles away, who took them in and sheltered them.

Cedric Broken Nose, whose mother was Spotted Elk’s great granddaughter, told the crowd in Barre that the articles being returned that day held special significance to those whose ancestors survived the massacre, and to those who died that day.

“These are their spiritual items. Their spiritual clothing. Their sacred pipes. Because they have been kept here, their spirits are uneasy.” 

Broken Nose had been chosen to drive the artifacts back to South Dakota. He said, “It is a very great honor to take the spirits of my grandfathers and grandmothers home, so we can heal as an Oyate, as a People. We will do this the right way, the spiritual way. Thank you to the directors who took care of these items for a very long time. When we go home we will do very sacred ceremonies. As I go home tomorrow, I will stop every few hundred miles to pray, that our ancestors will come home.

Cedric Broken Nose, at podium, with members of the International Indigenous Youth Council / Oglala Lakota Chapter standing behind him, told the audience, “It’s a very great honor to take the spirits of my great grandfathers and grandmothers home. Standing to his left, Michael He Crow, Wendell Yellow Bull and (seated) Oglala Sioux Tribal President Kevin Killer

When she came forward to the microphone to speak, Violet Catches could not hold back her tears. She said, “What happened here today is called wolakhota, which means peace.”  Her grandfather, Leon Holy, survived the slaughter at Wounded Knee by running away with other children, as a blizzard descended on the scene of the massacre.

At the end of the ceremony, to honor the work of the museum board in repatriating the artifacts, and to thank all who came to witness the event, the Lakota held a traditional wopila giveaway, honoring each member of the board and consultant Aaron Miller with beautiful handmade quilts, and inviting everyone in the audience to form a line and shake their hands. They gave beadwork jewelry and other  handcrafted gifts to everyone in the audience.

At a farewell dinner for the Nipmuc and the Lakota guests, former state senator Stephen Brewer offered closing remarks. As president of the Barre Savings Charitable Foundation, he noted that a $5,000 grant from that organization had made the day’s proceedings possible, “to make our library whole again. There was a stain on it, because we had something that wasn’t ours.” Brewer, who lives in Barre and had been among the advisors to the Barre Museum Association who, in past years, had resisted the call for repatriation concluded, “People’s minds can be changed. We can learn from each other, even at my age, 75. Thank you all for blessing our little town with your presence.”

Wendell Yellow Bull thanked the board members of the Barre Museum Association, after they received beautiful handmade quilts from the Lakota. Standing left to right, board members Lucy Allen, Elizabeth Martin and board president Ann Melius. Earlier, Yellow Bull told the audience that his ancestor, Joseph Horn Cloud, survived the massacre at the age of 19, after watching both his parents, two brothers, a sister and a niece die in the melee. Joseph Horn Cloud went on to raise money to erect the world famous marker at the mass grave, which among the incomplete list of names, all men, graven on the obelisk, memorializes his father with the words: “Horn Cloud the Peacemaker died here innocent.”
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