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Ahead of ceremonies at Wounded Knee, items returned to Lakota from New England museum bring hope

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Michael He Crow, 60, stands on the road in Ogala, South Dakota that leads to the cabin where he grew up, on Dec. 27, 2022. (Nancy Eve Cohen/NEPM)
Michael He Crow, 60, stands on the road in Ogala, South Dakota that leads to the cabin where he grew up, on Dec. 27, 2022. (Nancy Eve Cohen/NEPM)

As people on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota this week prepare for the annual remembrance of the massacre at Wounded Knee, they’re reflecting also on items that were returned last month by a museum in Barre, Massachusetts. The moccasins, pipes and other items are believed to have been taken off the bodies of those killed.

In December 1890, Chief Big Foot was worried his people weren’t safe from white soldiers. So he and about 350 of his band headed to Pine Ridge, seeking refuge. But along the way, they were forced to surrender to the U.S. Cavalry, which slaughtered at least 150 and as many as 300 people, including women, children and babies.

But some survived.

"Jackson He Crow and James Pipe On Head. George and Thomas Blue Legs and John Little Finger. And they were all from 8 years old to about 14 years old," Michael He Crow said during an interview this week in Oglala, South Dakota.

He Crow said the five boys first hid from the soldiers in a cave. His great grandfather, Jackson He Crow, was 9.

When Michael was born, Jackson was still alive and they spoke Lakota to each other.

He Crow, now 60, led the way through deep snow to a cemetery in Oglala, to the grave shared by his great grandfather and great grandmother.

"Jackson and Winona are that one," he said. "That big gray one."

He wiped the snow from their stone.

He Crow is an artist who helped identify the colors and designs on the items returned last month by a tiny museum in Barre, Massachusetts. Native people have been trying for decades to get the museum to give the belongings back.

Michael He Crow wipes snow away from the gravestone of his great grandmother and great grandfather, Winona and Jackson He Crow, in Oglala, South Dakota, on Dec. 27, 2022. At age 9, Jackson He Crow not only survived the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 by running and hiding, he also rescued his mother who had been shot by the U.S. Cavalry. (Nancy Eve Cohen/NEPM)
Michael He Crow wipes snow away from the gravestone of his great grandmother and great grandfather, Winona and Jackson He Crow, in Oglala, South Dakota, on Dec. 27, 2022. At age 9, Jackson He Crow not only survived the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 by running and hiding, he also rescued his mother who had been shot by the U.S. Cavalry. (Nancy Eve Cohen/NEPM)

When he first saw pictures of the museum’s collection, He Crow focused on beaded moccasins. He believes they were taken off the feet of people killed at Wounded Knee

"I was wondering who they belonged to," he said, "and what they looked like and you know how much fear and pain they were going through as they were running. I put myself in those moccasins like I was there ... It just felt empty inside."

He Crow said his generation still feels the pain of the massacre. Getting items back won’t get rid of it, he said, but will start to heal it — and will help the people killed.

"Part of their spirit was gone when those things were taken from them," he said. "So it’s reconnecting them to be a whole person again. Like when they go back to the other world, it’s not something missing from them anymore."

In the parking lot of Our Lady of Sioux Catholic Church in Oglala, a semi truck pulled in, stuffed with donations — including mittens, socks and hats from New England. They were donated at a ceremony for the Wounded Knee items in Barre.

A group of men and women get ready to unload. But first — a prayer. Sage is burned to purify.

"I would like to thank the drivers of this vehicle to bring all this items here to our people to people who are in need," said Albert Red Bear Jr.

In his prayer, he talked about the upcoming ceremony at Wounded Knee.

"[Ceremonies] with some of the artifacts that have been returned to the Lakota people. It's going to be a great day and a blessing day for our people," he said. "So, with that, I’m going to make a prayer to my relatives and give thanks to the Creator."

Jack Red Cloud is also there. The 39-year-old has high hopes for the 19th century items from the museum in Barre.

"For these things to return is really very important. It’s not important to the outside world. It’s important to the Lakota people, and the families they come from," he said. "So these things come back and they could bring healing. Maybe some day we will be a nation without poverty."

More than half the residents of Oglala Lakota County live below the poverty line, according to the Census, with a median income of $14,878.

The items from Barre are still packed and sealed in archival boxes. He Crow said people are not opening them, out of respect for those who died.

On Thursday, the unopened boxes and photographs of the items will be brought to the massacre site for a ceremony. They will then travel to a school, where elders can sit with them, out of the cold.

This story is a production of New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media.

This segment aired on December 30, 2022.

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