With the flashlight from her smartphone, Renee Iron Hawk peered into the dust-covered glass and wood cabinets inside a small, dark museum in Barre, Mass.
“Going through those cabinets, looking at these items of our people with the light from our phones, it was just something deep to me,” Iron Hawk said. “It felt like the breath went out of me. I had to sit down and rest. I had to say a prayer.”
How a collection from one of history’s worst atrocities against American Indians ended up in Barre is almost as painful as the memory of the massacre.
Some of the items were sold by gravediggers to Frank Root, a traveling shoe salesman from Barre, who used them as part of his Wild West roadshow before he donated them in 1892 to the town’s museum, where they’ve stayed for more than a century. They are among the more than 780,000 burial items and possessions of Native Americans held in museums or other institutions as of September 2021, according to a report to Congress.
“It’s a stolen collection,” Iron Hawk said of the Barre objects. “Just like they stole our lands; it’s the same.”
Now she, her husband, Manny, and their group, HAWK 1890 — which stands for Heartbeat at Wounded Knee and includes American Indians whose relatives were slain in or survived the massacre — have launched an effort to have the items returned to their tribes, the Oglala Lakota and Cheyenne River Sioux.
Earlier this year, they seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough. But the deal they struck this spring with officials from the Barre Museum Association has stalled, leaving the Indians fearing a repeat of the country’s long history of broken promises to Native Americans.
Museum officials insist that is not the case but also say they must follow protocols to ensure that the objects are returned properly.
The delays have frustrated the Indians. Without those items in their tribal homelands, Manny Iron Hawk said, they believe their ancestors are in limbo.
“For our way of life, when somebody makes their journey to the other side, their spirit has to go and be released,” said Manny, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River tribe and a great-great-grandson of a man killed at Wounded Knee. “That didn’t happen for these ancestors.”
He said their items and objects need to be brought back “so we can do the proper ceremony and their spirits can take that journey to the other side. They need to come home.”
American Indians were struggling to survive in the years leading up to Wounded Knee. The huge herds of buffalo on which they depended were gone. They had been forced off their lands and onto reservations. They had suffered devastating losses in battle and betrayals when the United States broke treaties it had signed with them.
A census record from 1890 showed “Indians were vanishing,” according to Jim Adams, a senior historian with the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
Their suffering fueled a revival of the “Ghost Dance,” a spiritual movement embraced by some American Indians who believed it would make the White men disappear, resurrect dead Indians and bring back the buffalo herds.
In 1890, the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment was sent with the largest deployment of federal troops since the end of the Civil War to stop the rise of the Ghost Dance. Soldiers tried to arrest Sitting Bull, one of the most renowned Lakota chiefs. Instead, an altercation broke out, and Sitting Bull was shot and killed at the Standing Rock reservation.
Fearing more violence, another chief, Big Foot, a leader of the Minneconjou Lakota, went to Wounded Knee and set up camp near a creek, Adams said.
On Dec. 29, the U.S. Army surrounded the group at Wounded Knee Creek. Accounts of what happened next vary. Adams and some other historians say the soldiers demanded that the Indians surrender their weapons. They say that most complied but that one Lakota was reluctant to give up his rifle. Suddenly, a rifle went off, and the soldiers started shooting, at times using rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns.
The Lakotas fought back, but most of them had already given up their weapons.
“It was a straight-up massacre,” Adams said. The soldiers pursued some of the survivors for up to five miles in the snow and killed them. Some historians put the number of Indians slain closer to 400, rather than the 250 cited by other sources.
Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, an Army commander during the Indian wars, wrote in an 1891 letter, “I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee.”
“Women with little children on their backs, and small children powder-burned by the men who killed them being so near as to burn the flesh and clothing with the powder of their guns, and nursing babies with five bullet holes through them.”
At least three dozen soldiers were killed, and another 20 were later awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions at Wounded Knee. In 1990, Congress issued a formal apology for the massacre and expressed “deep regret,” but it offered no reparations for the massacre.
That same year, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, requiring museums and institutions that receive federal funding to return any American Indian remains or objects to their rightful owners. But the law has loopholes, and regaining possession of items can sometimes involve long, expensive legal battles.
“Native Americans are the last group of people who have to fight for the right to have claims to things that are theirs,” said Valerie J. Grussing, the executive director of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers. “That’s outrageous.”
For decades, Lakotas tried to get some of the stolen items back from the Barre Museum but got little response.
Then, in 2000, Leonard Little Finger — an Oglala Lakota and a descendant of Chief Big Foot — successfully lobbied the Barre Museum to return a lock of the chief’s hair after proving through a tribal court that he was related to him.
Little Finger said in a 2010 letter to the National Park Service that Ann E. Meilus — the president of the Barre Museum Association’s board — had called him in 2007 asking for advice because activist groups were “demanding the return” of the Wounded Knee items. He met with her and the museum board in Barre, and they discussed donating items to the Journey Museum in Rapid City, S.D. But Meilus said in an interview that Journey officials wanted the “whole collection, not just the items from Wounded Knee,” which the board was not willing to grant.
“We felt that was not the proper thing to do because we had other tribes come, and they blessed the museum, and they really liked the way the museum presented the items, so we felt that we would be dishonoring the other tribes,” Meilus said.
Still, many in the Wounded Knee descendants group wanted to pursue getting the items returned.
“We knew stuff had been stored, or sold, or traded and in some cases stolen. It all mostly just gradually disappeared,” said Wendell Yellow Bull, an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota whose great-grandfather, Joseph Horn Cloud, survived Wounded Knee at 16 years old.
This year, a Vermont-based activist, Mia Feroleto, contacted Oglala Lakota leaders to help push for the return of the objects.
In April, Manny and Renee Iron Hawk, along with Chief Henry Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota Nation, flew more than 1,800 miles to Boston. They had been invited to see the items and meet with officials from the Barre Museum Association. They were accompanied by a few other American Indians from tribes in the Massachusetts area: the Nipmuc and the Wampanoags.
When they arrived, the Iron Hawks said, they’d barely gotten out of their cars when a representative of the museum association board met them in the parking lot and told them what seemed like good news: The board had held a brief meeting before they arrived and taken a vote. They’d decided to return the items.
Manny and his wife said they were surprised and a bit skeptical.
“I really didn’t believe it,” Manny said.
Still, they tried to stay optimistic. Before they went into the building, the American Indians performed a ritual — they smudged those who were there by lighting some sage, letting it burn and wafting the scent and smoke over their heads. It was meant as a symbol to “start things in a good way,” Manny said. “To clear the heart, mind and soul and clear the air before we were to go in and see these special items from our ancestors.”
They then said a prayer in Lakota to the Creator, asking that the items “of our relatives will come home soon,” Manny said.
The Indians met with about six museum association board members, most of whom are White. The board members had questions: Where would the Indians store the items? Would they be damaged? Would they be sold?
Renee Iron Hawk said she found their inquiries insulting.
The board members also set a few stipulations. They wanted to hire an expert to do an inventory and check the authenticity of the items — work that the Iron Hawks and other Indians in their group think is unnecessary.
After they ate some sandwiches, the Native Americans were allowed to view the items. They were told not to take pictures — a museum policy — and not to touch anything, because items probably had been treated with arsenic to preserve them.
About half a dozen Indians, a curator and a few museum officials stepped inside the small, dark room where the items sat in closed and, in some cases, locked cabinets.
One case held several pairs of suede leggings and a few pairs of children’s moccasins. Another contained a few medicine pouches and several breast plates made of shell bones. A headdress with feathers hung in one. Beaded pouches shaped like turtles and salamanders with dried umbilical cords of Indian babies tucked inside lay in one case.
“You could tell the leather, the beadwork and the designs were of Lakotas,” said Renee Iron Hawk. “There was no doubt they were ours. They came from our people.”
Yet another cabinet held a ghost shirt, worn to protect men at war from harm.
After roughly 45 minutes of looking at the objects, the Iron Hawks left the museum. Again, they smudged, and then they attended a town hall meeting that had been set up for their visit. About 100 Barre residents showed up.
Manny Iron Hawk shared a story that his mother had told him about Wounded Knee. Every time she told it, she’d cry.
His great-grandmother, Alice Ghost Horse-War Bonnet, was 10 during the attack, he said.
“Men and women took up weapons, and when the shooting started, she was running with her mother holding her hand,” he said.
“They were told, ‘Run, run. The cavalry is coming to get you. They’re coming to hunt you and kill you.’ ” Alice survived, but her father, Ghost Horse, and her teenage brother were slain.
“All of that is carried on in these items from that killing field,” Manny explained. “It’s a trauma, a historical trauma, that we still carry today.”
After the meeting, Manny said, a few residents approached him and expressed support for the return of the objects. Others said they were surprised to know the town had such items.
Once back in South Dakota, the Iron Hawks and their supporters said they expected to hear from the museum board about the logistics of getting the items back. But they didn’t.
Meilus, the museum board’s president, said in late June that the association had received a grant to test the items for arsenic. She said the board wanted to ensure an inventory and analysis of the items was done to ensure that they were authentic and had come from Wounded Knee.
Root, the man who donated the items to the museum, was known for buying artifacts as he traveled and using them in his roadshow, according to Meilus, so she said she thinks that some of the items in the museum’s collection may not belong to Lakotas. She said she thinks the items are from 30 tribes across the country.
Meilus and the board also want the HAWK 1890 members to get formal resolutions passed by their respective tribal councils so the transfer of the Wounded Knee items has broader support than “just a group of individuals who is making this request.”
Meilus said she favors repatriating the items to the tribes because, “if you meet the people, they are still in a great deal of pain. It’s multigenerational pain, and if we can help them, the Oglala Sioux people, get closure, I’m all for it.”
But the Native Americans view the museum association’s bureaucratic demands as delaying tactics.
“They said they were going to give them back verbally,” Manny said. “Now they seem to have changed their mind and gone back on their word about returning them to us.”
“We’re used to that as natives,” he said. “People haven’t kept their word to us for centuries.”
Still, Renee said, the tribe will get the items back, even if doing so takes years. “We have a spiritual belief that’s strong, and we believe our relatives are going to help us.
“We will get them home.”
This story has been updated with the name of the Vermont-based activist, Mia Feroleto, who contacted Oglala Lakota leaders to help push for the return of the objects.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.