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NAGPRA not followed in repatriation of cultural items

Itancan Hehaka Gleska (Chief Spotted Elk) also known as Chief Big Foot whose body lies frozen in the snow. (Courtesy photo)

There is an iconic 1890 photo etched deeply in the minds of most people who have ever seen it, a man, Chief Big Foot, body frozen stiff on bloody snow. For millions of people around the world, this image, and the man, have become a symbol of military aggression, injustice, and murder. Over 250 Lakota, 47 of them women and children, were surrounded by elements of the Seventh Cavalry and while the process of disarming them was well underway, a rifle shot rang out, initiating a mass slaughter.

Although the U.S. Congress officially expressed their “deep regret” for this incident in 1990, they did not apologize, and the history since the massacre has been filled with reactions and consequences that resonate powerfully to this very day. The lineal descendants of Chief Bog Foot still survive, like Calvin and Michelle Spotted Elk, and there are two salient facts misunderstood about their ancestor. One, he was not Oglala, and those who followed him were not either; he came down to the Pine Ridge Reservation from his home on Cheyenne River, the home of the Four Bands, Minnecoujou, Oohenunpa, Itazipico, and Sihásapa. Along with some Hunkpapa from Standing Rock, these are the people who died at Wounded Knee. The reasons why they came are not germane to this article, save that at no time on that journey did they threaten or kill white settlers. But Wounded Knee is on the reservation of the Oglala, and so people assume this was the tribe massacred. The other misunderstanding is his name. It was not Big Foot. It was Spotted Elk, and he was the half-brother of Sitting Bull.

A longtime ally and legal counsel for the Wounded Knee Survivors Association, and Oglala Lakota tribal member, Mario Gonzalez, told NSNT how Chief Big Foot got his name: “Burdell Blue Arm, from Cherry Creek, before he passed away, told me that Spotted Elk was from the Cheyenne River Reservation, The government used to pass out rations and annuities and once they passed out some shoes. He was a chief, so he would never be the first in line to get these benefits, so he’d make sure all his followers got these benefits, or whatever else was available, and he would wait until last, and so when the shoes were all passed out he ended up with a pair of shoes that were too big for him but he put them on and wore them anyway, and so they called him Big Foot, it was a nickname. That nickname kind of stuck, and the family doesn’t like to use that name. They like to use the original name which was Chief Spotted Elk.”

Calvin and Michelle were not contacted let alone invited to participate in the recent repatriation of about nine cultural items connected to Wounded Knee from the Founders Museum in Barre, Massachusetts, despite decades of efforts by Calvin to get his grandfather’s cultural items returned. Tunkashila is the Lakota word for grandfather, and it applies to an actual grandfather and to those who came before that grandfather.

“We found out after getting back from a long trip,” Michelle said, “that there was going to be a voluntary repatriation of the artifacts, and in 1994 Calvin and his father went to Barre, Massachusetts…”

“…on our own money,” Calvin adds.

“The items at that time,” Michelle continued, “including Chief Spotted Elk’s lock of hair, they had to be returned under NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). So, Jasper, Calvin’s father, put in a claim, and another gentlemen (Leonard Little Finger) put in a claim at the same time, and there was a conflict. But Jasper was the lineal descendent, this other person worked for Indian Health Service, worked for the government at the time, and he somehow was able to obtain administrator to the estate, and the museum wrongfully repatriated it to him. So, it went to tribal court and Judge Sidney Witt was presiding over the case. Because it was being contested, he asked this other person to hold onto the lock of hair until the next court date. In the meantime, Jasper consented to testing the three strands of hair for DNA (match). Jasper had all of his documentation—this other person, when they researched him, they couldn’t find a family tree up in Cheyenne River, so basically this person went against a tribal court judge’s order and held a so-called ceremony in Massachusetts, away from all of the people, and he burned it. That was very painful, of course, for Calvin and Richard (Calvin’s older brother) and Jasper that he did that. Not only did he destroy DNA evidence, it was something that was extremely important to them. This gentleman was held in contempt for that, and for many years nothing was done about that, but he continued to travel around and inform the public that he was the grandson, and two other gentlemen were actually grandsons, but in order for Spotted Elk to have been the father of the ancestor he claimed, he would have to have been twelve years old at the time. It was impossible. These documents didn’t line up.”

Eventually the case came back to court. “We asked the judge to please close the estate,” Michelle said. “So that Wounded Knee could not be exploited anymore. She honored that, but she wouldn’t say one way or another who was who. But Calvin does have all of the documents, including the Individual History Card, which is something extremely rare. (Notable tribal members have Individual History Cards). All of Calvin’s grandfathers are listed on the card…and all of those names are on the Lakota Winter Counts.”

Now 54, Calvin has been working on getting his grandfather’s cultural items back “since I graduated from the Eighth Grade.”

“My grandfather,” Calvin said, “he had a band of orphans (he took care of), and the descendants of the orphans are exploiting my people, and I’m here to stop that. If you ever go to Wounded Knee there’s like all kinds of vendors, some of them are real abrupt, they won’t take no for an answer, sometimes they are intoxicated or something, and that’s supposed to be a sacred place. (The Army) murdered my grandfather, he was first or second to get shot. He got killed execution style, and when I heard that story from my dad, it was a real shock, I thought he was negotiating with the government and the government had him executed.”

After the massacre, those who could show they were damaged by the consequence, received monetary compensation, (Depredation Act) the list available in The Politics of Hallowed Ground by Mario Gonzalez and Elizabeth Cook/Lynn.

“They paid it to the wrong people,” Calvin said, “But that’s another issue where the government apologized to the wrong people. The true descendants were in hiding because they were scared as hell. They were terrified of the military and the government. I came down here (to Pine Ridge) to not only pay my respects to the artifacts but to say some prayers.”

“I don’t want to quarrel with anybody over my own ancestry,’ Calvin concluded. “I never said I was a chief and I’m not looking for no fame or fortune in this, but I have to get the truth out there. First, I started research with my partner here, and now we are working on a documentary. This is the kind of life I was born into, I’m nobody special, I’m just like the other descendants, even though my grandfather was the leader, I consider myself way in the back of the line, not in the front.”

This is where the Barre Museum has considered Calvin and his lineal descent documentation, for whatever reason—way at the back of the line. Perhaps it is because Calvin represents an individual with no official title or special expertise, and so in their minds, carries less weight than those with any of those tribal level affiliations. And yet, in the NAGPRA guidelines, it states the priority list when it comes to repatriation of cultural items. Lineal descendants are to be considered first, and the tribe where the cultural items were collected is to be considered second, and yet, when Barre repatriated more items last week, the tribe was considered, Calvin was not even contacted. Leonard Little Finger never established lineal descent, and he violated a court order when he burned the hair of Chief Spotted Elk. Calvin established documented lineal descent, and might have established a DNA connection, had the hair not been destroyed.

This case indicates that the government struggles to implement NAGPRA specifics, not only for an individual event, but over the course of decades, and wrongs are committed, wrongs running diametric to NAGPRA’s intent, as a consequence of this inability.

(Contact James Giago Davies at


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