BARRE — For more than a century, a Barre museum held within its collection heartbreaking reminders of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the deaths of nearly 300 Lakota men, women, and children slain by US troops in South Dakota.
But in an emotional, poignant, and at times joyful two-hour public ceremony Saturday afternoon, the leadership of the Founders Museum symbolically returned more than 130 artifacts — including clothing, weapons, arrows, and moccasins looted from the people killed — to representatives from the Oglala Lakota and Cheyenne River tribes.
Saturday’s ceremony, held inside the gym at the Ruggles Lane Elementary School, is far from the solemn grounds of the massacre site on the South Dakota plains. But it offered some relief to those who came to Massachusetts to finally right a long-standing wrong.
“Ever since that Wounded Knee massacre happened, genocides have been instilled in our blood,” said Surrounded Bear, 20, who traveled to Barre from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “And for us to bring back these artifacts, that’s a step towards healing. That’s a step in the right direction.”
On Dec. 29, 1890, US soldiers were attempting to disarm a group of Lakota near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota when some believe a Lakota man’s rifle discharged, and troops opened fire. Many of the Lakota killed at Wounded Knee were later found to be unarmed.
Lakota bodies were buried in a mass grave at the site, and many of their personal belongings were looted and sold. The Founders Museum obtained the artifacts a few years after the massacre from a salesman, Frank Root, who had donated the items after using them as part of a traveling show.
Ann Meilus, president of the Barre Museum Association, said Saturday’s ceremony was the end of about 30 years of “trying to come to a positive conclusion” with the artifacts.
“It was always important to me to give them back,” Meilus said. “I think the museum will be remembered for being on the right side of history for returning these items.”
In 1990, Congress passed a resolution that expressed “deep regret” for the Wounded Knee Massacre. And in recent years, lawmakers including US Senator Elizabeth Warren, have backed legislation to strip Medal of Honor awards to nearly two dozen troops who participated in the massacre.
The “soldiers’ acts of violence at Wounded Knee were not heroic, but rather tragic and profoundly shameful,” Warren said in a statement last year.
Saturday’s ceremony, which included prayers from Lakota representatives and a performance of a traditional song, featured speakers like Wendell Yellow Bull, who described how the massacre affected their families for generations.
Yellow Bull, 61, a member of the Oglala Lakota, grew up with stories about his ancestor, Joseph Horn Cloud.
Horn Cloud wrote a firsthand account of experiencing the massacre as a 19-year-old, Yellow Bull said.
Saturday’s public event was a symbolic return of the artifacts, Yellow Bull said. A private ceremony will be held later to officially hand over the items. He wanted people to understand that Indigenous people are not simply relegated to history.
Yellow Bull, who is also from the Pine Ridge reservation, said the return of the artifacts was “the beginning of healing.”
“I want them to walk away [from the public ceremony] knowing that we are all human beings,” he said.
Nicole McGaa, 20, an MIT student from Minneapolis who is a member of the Oglala Lakota joined a group of students from Harvard University and other local colleges who attended the ceremony.
McGaa’s great-grandfather, as a 6-year-old, saw the Wounded Knee site the day after the massacre, she said. A few days ago, she asked her aunt to share more details from his experience with the massacre’s aftermath.
She has been driven to know the truth, she said, though it’s been difficult to hear it. Saturday’s ceremony provided some relief, she said.
“That was a very heavy thing to deal with. And I’m still thinking about it today,” she said. “I’m simultaneously reliving the hurt of that... while also being extremely relieved that some first steps like this have taken place.”
Aieshya Jackson, 38, of Barre, said she hopes the return of the items serves as an example to other institutions that still hold onto Native American artifacts.
Jackson, who attended the public ceremony as a representative of the Nipmuc Tribe, called it a “dream for all tribes.”
This is “something that shows love and compassion from the museum on behalf of all of the people who were wounded,” she said.
Surrounded Bear said he grew up with stories of relatives who died at Wounded Knee and the deep pain caused by the massacre continues to be felt by his family.
“I feel relieved that there’s actually people that are wanting to work with us,” he said. “Everything’s finally slowly getting back into place.”
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.