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'Now they're home': Wounded Knee ceremonies welcome back native objects long held by Mass. museum

Every year in late December, Native people gather at the mass grave site in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, to pray for those slaughtered by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890.

But the remembrance this year included boxes of items that a museum in central Massachusetts recently returned to the Oglala Lakota Nation.

'We need to remember the pain they suffered'

On a muddy hillside in Wounded Knee, a crowd on Thursday prepared to honor those killed here 132 years ago. Uphill to a narrow grave site, they carried seven long boxes filled with moccasins, pipes, cradle boards and more.

“This is a war shirt, so be careful," Cedric Broken Nose said.

Riders and supporters prepare to leave on Dec. 28, 2022, for the last day’s ride to the Wounded Knee Massacre site.
John Willis
/
for New England News Collaborative
Riders and supporters prepare to leave on Dec. 28, 2022, for the last day’s ride to the Wounded Knee Massacre site.

Broken Nose drove the items to the Pine Ridge reservation last month from the Founders Museum in Barre, Massachusetts. They were donated to the museum in the late 1800s by a traveling showman. Some had labels on them: “Wounded Knee.”

Broken Nose is the great-grandson of James Pipe On Head, who — as a boy — survived the massacre at Wounded Knee. Standing at the site Thursday, Broken Nose explained what the cavalry did on December 29, 1890.

"The Hotchkiss guns were probably placed here," he said, "and were pointing down at the people where they were camped. Hostage-like, they were shot at."

Historians estimate as many as 300 were killed. They were part of Chief Big Foot’s band, and had been traveling from Standing Rock, trying to seek safety from white soldiers.

Many here believe the items from Barre were stolen off the bodies of the dead.

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.

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

The boxes were placed end-to-end on top of the narrow snow-covered gravesite, with people lining each side. The smell of burning sage spreads in the air. A sacred pipe was filled, and a drum played. Prayers are made in Lakota.

As the ceremony ended, Richard Broken Nose sang a ghost dance song that dates back to before the massacre.

'Could that have belonged to my grandma?'

The boxes were then taken to a school gym in nearby Porcupine. They remain sealed, out of respect for those killed.

Photographs are displayed on top of each box, showing what’s inside. There are pictures of tiny moccasins and cradle boards.

Community members walk by the repatriated Wounded Knee Massacre items on Dec. 29, 2022, and view photographs of the items in the Porcupine School gym on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
John Willis
/
for New England News Collaborative
Community members walk by the repatriated Wounded Knee Massacre items on Dec. 29, 2022, and view photographs of the items in the Porcupine School gym on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Donna Salomon looked carefully and wiped away tears.

"I'm looking at them, thinking, 'Could that have belonged to my grandma? Could that have belonged to my grandpa? Whose baby was that [whose] little baby articles belonged to? Could that be someone related to me?'" Salomon said.

Her great-grandmother, Alice Horn Cloud, survived the massacre. Other family members did not.

The big question now is what to do with the items. Salomon said, in her culture, clothing and some personal items are burned when a person dies to release their spirit.

Donna Salomon, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, shows a photograph of her great-grandmother, Alice Horn Cloud White Wolf, left, who survived the massacre at Wounded Knee.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Donna Salomon, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, shows a photograph of her great-grandmother, Alice Horn Cloud White Wolf, left, who survived the massacre at Wounded Knee.

"And so right now by bringing them back, and if we can agree on how we're going to do that, that would be good," she said. "Because — what is it — 130-some years now. Maybe their spirits can go where they need to go."

Mary Blue Legs is also a descendant of a survivor. She wanted to get the items back from the Massachusetts museum for a long time.

"After a while I got mad and I started standing up and telling them, 'We need to get them back! There has to be a way that we can get them back.' And whatever you guys do — because women aren’t allowed to do that, it's always up to the men — whatever you do, I will back you up."

She is glad the objects are back, but like Salomon she would like to see them burned.

"It’s enough that there’s pictures up there. Everybody knows what they look like. There' s pictures, for future generations," she said. "But I want to burn [the objects] and give them back. Because they don’t belong to us. They belong to the ones that passed away. Those are theirs."

Over the coming year, the community will meet to discuss what will happen with these items taken from them generations ago.

In the meantime, the boxes will remain sealed and in storage — until this time next year.

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.
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