LINCOLN — Actor Johnny Depp's offer to pay a multimillion-dollar price tag to restore ownership of the Wounded Knee massacre site to the Oglala Sioux likely won him new fans in Indian country.
But it doesn't resolve the question of how to honor the dead of Wounded Knee.
“It's an easy answer, but it's not really a solution,” said Elizabeth Castle, until recently a history professor at the University of South Dakota who has studied the events of Wounded Knee.
Chuck Trimble of Omaha, a Native American rights advocate and journalist who is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota nation, is among those who think Depp should do something else with his money.
“I think it's very generous of him, but there are quite a number of people who wish he wouldn't do this,” Trimble said. “If he wants to give millions, he should give it to a cause, and not pay it to a man who is holding the Wounded Knee site for a price — and it's very questionable how he got it in the first place.”
Depp, who plays the role of Tonto in Disney's current remake of “The Lone Ranger,” recently told the British tabloid the Daily Mail that he was interested in purchasing a 40-acre parcel that includes the Wounded Knee massacre site.
The property recently was put on the market by its private owner, James Czywczynski of Rapid City, S.D. Though the land has an assessed value of less than $14,000, Czywczynski has set a $4.9 million asking price.
Some speculate that Depp is trying to make amends to American Indians for his portrayal of Tonto, which included culturally inaccurate dress and face paint.
The Daily Mail asked Depp if he really was prepared to pay for the land.
“I am doing my best to make it happen,” he said. “It's land they were pushed onto, and then they were massacred there. It really saddens me.”
Bryan Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, told the Indian Country Today Media Network that he welcomed the offer.
“We certainly appreciate his concern for this matter and the respect he is demonstrating to our people,” Brewer said. “The possibility of his goodwill effort toward keeping this land intact and in tribal hands is amazing.”
Czywczynski told the media network that his top priority is that whoever purchases the land donate it to the tribe.
“I really don't care who buys it and donates it to the Oglala Sioux Tribe as long as somebody does it,” he 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.”
Castle said Depp's offer brings light to a worrisome situation.
“The most notorious space for the oppression and murder of Native American people is on the auction block right now — and Johnny Depp's going to buy it,” she said. “It's just surreal.”
Trimble said descendants of those who died and those who survived the 1890 massacre do not want to see anyone profit from the dead of Wounded Knee.
“To the Wounded Knee Survivors Association, honoring (their dead) means leaving them alone,” Trimble said. “They don't want any development in the area. They don't want anybody making money off the massacre or anything that would attract tourists.”
Some estimate that as many as 300 Indians were slain in the Wounded Knee Massacre on Dec. 29, 1890, the last major battle of the American Indian wars.
It occurred after the U.S. 7th Cavalry surrounded a band of people seeking to participate in Ghost Dances, a spiritual movement that many Sioux believed would restore their traditional way of life.
The shooting started as the cavalry attempted to disarm the band. At least 25 members of the cavalry were killed, too, perhaps in their own crossfire or by Native Americans who refused to hand over their guns.
The bodies — half of them women and children — were thrown into a mass grave by local ranchers hired by the Army.
In 1973, Wounded Knee became the site of a showdown between the American Indian Movement and tribal leaders backed by the federal government.
About 200 AIM members and supporters decided to occupy the hamlet. A 71-day siege ensued that resulted in hundreds of arrests, the deaths of two Native Americans and the permanent paralysis of a federal marshal who was wounded by a bullet.
After the siege, a virtual civil war broke out between factions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which left more than 100 Indians dead. AIM leader Leonard Peltier was sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of two FBI agents in a 1975 gunfight.
Trimble said the pain of Wounded Knee remains fresh.
“The sore just won't heal,” he said. “Poor Johnny Depp. He's still trying to sell his Tonto role and hoping there won't be a backlash from Indian country. He's doing his best — he meant well. He still means well.”
The people killed in the 1890 massacre were Minniconjou Sioux, led by Chief Big Foot from the Cheyenne River Reservation south to the Pine Ridge for safety and for the Ghost Dances. That sets up tension between their survivors and the economic interests of the people who live on the Pine Ridge, Trimble said.
The Wounded Knee mass grave site already is on tribal property. The fight over the massacre site dates at least to 1968, according to Trimble.
A group of investors, including Czywczynski, sought to establish a monument there. The land had been owned by Clive Gildersleeve and his wife, Agnes, who operated a store known as the Wounded Knee Battle Field Trading Post for more than 30 years.
The investors gave the Oglala Sioux Tribe one seat on a nonprofit advisory board.
Trimble said the plan fell apart after it became clear that its real purpose was to make money through a new motel and restaurant tourism complex. The store and a small museum on the site were burned down during the 1973 occupation.
Over the years, some unsuccessful efforts have been made to obtain the land from Czywczynski. In the mid-1990s, South Dakota's congressional delegation proposed establishing a national tribal memorial park at the site, but it was opposed as exploiting the dead.
Trimble said the tribe should wait out Czywczynski and take over the land when he's willing to accept a more realistic price.
“To my mind, he can't do anything with that land,” he said. “It's not worth $4.9 million — $50,000 would be a darn good price for it.”
Frank LaMere, a Winnebago activist from South Sioux City, Neb., said he defers to the Oglala Tribe to decide the best course of action.
“There are many ghosts at Wounded Knee, they must be allowed to rest,” he said.
“I see this as a spiritual matter. The Oglala Lakota relatives understand this, and they will know how to proceed. The resting place for those who died at Wounded Knee must be secured and protected.”
In the meantime, he added, he's going to go see “The Lone Ranger” for a second time. Despite critics' negative reviews, he said he liked the movie.
“I believe Johnny Depp has a good heart.”