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GIAGO: Indians and Jews could build a holocaust museum together

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As a child I rode a tricycle on the sidewalks of Wounded Knee with my playmate Joanne Gildersleeve, the daughter of Clive and Agnes. Agnes was an Ojibwe woman from Minnesota. They built the Wounded Knee Trading Post in 1931.

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I often ran up and down the steps of the Wounded Knee Trading Post to visit with my father, Tim, who was a clerk and butcher in the store. Agnes often ruffled my hair and handed me a piece of hard rock candy. The village of Wounded Knee was a wonderful place to live in the 1930s.

A stone fireplace is all that remains of the village. It was burned to the ground during the criminal takeover in 1973. The Associated Press often ignorantly refers to it as an “uprising,” and that could not be further from the truth. The villagers did not rise up and burn their own homes and destroy their own vehicles and lose all of their worldly possessions. So I wish AP would wise up.

The American Indian Movement thought it would be symbolic to take over a peaceful village on the sovereign lands of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. They thought it would be heroic to take an elderly couple, tie them to chairs in their own house, and scare them nearly to death. When Jim Czywcznski, the owner of the Wounded Knee Trading Post, was finally allowed to return to his home, all he found was ashes. Everything he owned had been stolen or demolished. His guns, his artwork, his family albums and his furniture, all of his family’s worldly possessions, all gone. And to top it off, AIM will be celebrating this debacle as a great victory this month.

Last year, Jim decided to put the land up for sale. He never rebuilt the trading post or the community because the tensions on the reservation were still very powerful, and the different factions of the Lakota were still at war with each other for many years. He felt that if he rebuilt it would all be destroyed again. And so he waited 40 years before placing the property on the sale block.

Jim saw the property not as just a piece of worthless land on an Indian reservation, but he saw it as a historical property where one of the worst massacres in American history took place. When I walked on the property with him, my mind drifted back to my childhood, and I could almost hear the voices of the elderly Lakota seated on the benches of the trading post, smoking cigarettes or pipes, and speaking softly in Lakota about the politics, religion and events of the reservation. The Wounded Knee Trading Post was a gathering place that housed the U.S. Post Office, grocery store and a small museum and arts and crafts store. It was where they came to buy their tobacco, groceries and sell their beadwork and quillwork. It was a place where they came to visit friends and pick up on the latest rumors and gossip.

Coincidentally, I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., a few years back, and the impact that visit had on me lasted a very long time. How human beings could be so cruel to other human beings stopped me cold. The survivors of the Holocaust, the Jewish people, wanted to build a place where people from around the world could see and experience the horror of the concentration camps and the gas chambers. They wanted to remind the world that this horrific moment in history must never happen again.

When I look around me at the empty grounds at Wounded Knee, this is what I visualize. Why not a Native American Holocaust Museum to remind America and the world of what happened to the indigenous people of the Americas? The Jews and the Indians were victims of a massive holocaust, and in order to remember one it follows that one must remember the other.

This, I thought, is an endeavor that Jews and Indians could accomplish together. The main obstacle to overcome is to convince the descendants of the survivors of Wounded Knee to see it as a tribute to the 300 men, women and children who were shot down like dogs on that fateful day of Dec. 29, 1890. Belva Hollow Horn Emery is the spokesperson for this group. Just like the Holocaust of World War II is not ancient history to the Jews, neither is the holocaust at Wounded Knee to the Lakota. My grandmother was working at a reservation school just 20 miles from Wounded Knee on that very day the Hotchkiss guns spit their bullets into the bodies of unarmed and defenseless men, women and children.

Surely there are generous donors out there who can see the wisdom of such a holocaust museum for the Native Americans. The museum would bring visitors from around the world and would provide jobs and opportunities to the people of a reservation where unemployment is at 80 percent. It would also serve as a place of education and prayer for all people.

I hope the United States Park Service and serious individuals will contact the head of Parks and Recreation for the Pine Ridge Reservation, Birgil Kills Straight, at bkillsstraight@yahoo.com and get the ball rolling. Let’s buy the land and move forward. Contact Jim Czywcznski at jimmyczy@aol.com, the owner of the Wounded Knee land site.

The Native American Holocaust Museum can become a reality, it will just take a lot of people pulling together. As Elie Wiesel, the man who hunted down so many Nazi perpetrators, said, “Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.”

-- Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the author of “Children Left Behind” and “Notes from Indian Country Volumes I and II.” He can be reached at unitysodak1@knology.net.

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