Descendants view Wounded Knee sacred belongings at Cherry Creek

Blue Gym in Cherry Creek where the Sacred belongings/Woyuha were on display for descendants of the Cankpe Opi (Wounded Knee) massacre. (Photo courtesy Calvin Spotted Elk)

CHERRY CREEK, SD – On Tuesday, June 11, 2024, approximately 70 – 90 Lakota relatives gathered at Cherry Creek, SD, on the Cheyenne River Lakota Reservation to honor their ancestors who were murdered at the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, the deadliest mass shooting in American history. The focus of the gathering was the Woyuha (sacred belongings) stolen from Lakota who died there. The collection includes ceremonial pipes, weapons, moccasins, clothing, and the dried umbilical cords traditionally kept by tribal members throughout their lives.

Since returning to South Dakota in November 2022 from Founders Museum in Barre, Massachusetts, the belongings have been held in safekeeping at Oglala Lakota College (OLC) Pine Ridge Center. Descendants have convened community meetings at various locations around the state to discuss the final disposition of the belongings.

Marlis Afraid of Hawk (Mnicoujou, enrolled in the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe), a respected elder and key member of the HAWK 1890 Wounded Knee Descendants Group, attended the Cherry Creek meeting. Her grandfather, Richard, survived the massacre as a 13-year-old and spent his life advocating for the revocation of Medals of Honor given to 20 soldiers who participated in the killing. Continuing her grandfather’s work, she is a proponent of the Remove the Stain Act, first introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 116th Congress (2019- 2020), which would rescind these medals.

According to Afraid of Hawk, the atmosphere of the Cherry Creek gathering was “positive, calm, with NO negative energy. …It was a historical event.”

Calvin Spotted Elk and family with Chantelle Blue Arm and her daughters Isabella and Andrea who are descendants of Blue Arm aka Tatooed who was a Wounded Knee Massacre survivor. (Photo courtesy Calvin Spotted Elk)

Calvin Spotted Elk, his wife Michelle, and their daughter Lillienee traveled from Scotts Valley, California, to attend the gathering. Calvin documents his direct descendancy from Chief Spotted Elk, a revered Lakota treaty signer, who died at Wounded Knee and who has erroneously been called “Big Foot” by many European historians.

Calvin’s grandfather was born on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Calvin’s father was Oglala Lakota and his mother was Lakota born on the Rosebud reservation. The couple say that they have been researching Wounded Knee history and advocating for descendants for over twenty years.

According to the Spotted Elks, “Tuesday, June 11 was a beautiful day of remembrance and reconciliation. … Those who are a part of original people from Spotted Elk’s band, mostly from Cherry Creek, saw these sacred belongings for the very first time. …It was a historic opportunity for descendants to meet, take names down and photographs, and most importantly, to actually see (the belongings) and reflect on them and the importance they hold for future generations. Hearing about them or seeing photos is one thing, but sitting with and feeling them is entirely different….

“People from Cheyenne River, Standing Rock, Pine Ridge, and Rosebud were present, creating a wonderful opportunity for unity….

“The first welcoming speakers were Ivan Looking Horse, CRST Chairman Ryman LeBeau, and Manny Iron Hawk, HAWK1890 Co-Chair, who shared words of encouragement and support with the thiospaye present. Standing Rock Elders Council member Virgil Taken Alive and another descendant of Sitting Bull, Emanuel Red Bear, also attended to share positive and historical words.

“We remembered our oldest living Wounded Knee descendants: Clem Long, Debbie Day, Marilynn Runs After, Arlene Demery, Frieda Holy Bull-Condon, and Violet Catches.

“There were honoring chairs where Justin Pourier, Calvin Spotted Elk, Manny Iron Hawk, Violet Catches, Barbara Dull Knife, Lynette Noline and others were honored.

“(Our daughter) Lillienne was taken by the hand and asked to help in the ceremony. She held the wasna (spirit food) while descendants took part and each passed by to view the belongings of the ancestors.”

Afraid of Hawk’s great-granddaughter Shaumari Yellow Earrings and her granddaughter Serenity Wilson also assisted in the ceremony.

The Spotted Elks continued, “We had the viewing of our Otakuye (relatives’) sacred belongings (Woyuha), followed by a Wiping of the Tears Ceremony…. A nice giveaway honored relatives seated on blanketed chairs for their contributions and service to our Woyuha.

“Afterwards, we enjoyed a hearty meal of buffalo wahanpi (soup), vegetable beef soup, wojapi (blueberry pudding), frybread, hot dogs, and lots of fruit (apples, bananas, watermelon, cantaloupe, and oranges) along with water and Gatorade.

“…everything was done in a very sacred manner. The people came together in unity and peace, creating a very positive experience. The entire event had a somber yet respectful feeling, with everyone listening attentively to our elders and guest speakers, sharing memories, and creating an overall sense of well-being. It was a wonderful day to pay homage to our relatives’ Woyuha coming home.”

About 10 high school students from Takini School came to the gathering in a school bus.

Jeffrey Hotchkiss from Maryland, a descendant of the inventor of the Hotchkiss gun used by the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee, was not able to attend but sent a letter of apology for his absence. The Hotchkiss guns used at Wounded Knee were single barrel, breach loading, 2-pounder mountain guns that fired approximately 4-6 rounds per minute depending on the efficiency of the gun crew. The guns’ effectiveness was brutal, since they fired both exploding shells and canisters, both used at Wounded Knee.

Brad Upton and Paul Soderman, both from Longmont, Colorado, were guests at the gathering. In the past 6 years, the two have visited Wounded Knee descendants in South Dakota, reaching out repeatedly with sincere expressions of remorse and apologies for their ancestors’ part in the genocide of the Lakota.

Upton’s fifth great-grandfather was Major General James W. Forsyth who commanded the 7th Calvary and led the troops to massacre over 250 unarmed women, children and men at Wounded Knee. Soderman is a descendant of Brigadier General William S. Harney, who commanded his troops to slaughter 86 Lakotas and capture 70 women and children during the Blue Water Creek Massacre in Nebraska on September 3, 1855.

Soderman worked with Basil Braveheart (Oglala Lakota) to change the name of Harney Peak, named after the general, to Black Elk Peak. The name was changed in September 2016.

Upton said that at age 16, a family member showed him photos of frozen corpses at Wounded Knee. Even at that young age, he knew what his grandfather had done was horrific and shameful. He said he has spent over 50 years of his life struggling with his family’s history and believes that his ancestor’s actions caused generational “karmic debt” which resulted in alcoholism, abuse and loss within his family.

June 11 was the second time that Upton had the opportunity to view the Woyuha (sacred belongings). He said this time was “more difficult than the first time … (I realized that) Wounded Knee was not only a massacre, it was a holocaust event.

“The U.S. government has never apologized (for the genocide of Native peoples). In the presence of the relics (sacred belongings), the truth (of that history) is present and potent. The pain and shame of all of that is illuminated and amplified. This is a national collective shame that is continuing as we speak…

“The (June 11) gathering was both heartbreaking and joyous at the same time. It was an amazing combination of feelings. …I feel blessed that the elders treated me with kindness and respect.”

Upton said that as he stood before the sacred belongings, he wept openly. “When you see babies’ moccasins and grandmothers’ dresses, it’s very difficult.” An elder told him, “Your tears help other people heal.”

Representatives from the Oglala Sioux were noticeably absent from the gathering. The most vocal of the Oglala have stated that the sacred belongings should be ceremonially burned. They scheduled a burning ceremony for December 29, 2023, the anniversary of the massacre. Plans for the burning were halted at the last minute due to pressure from other descendants who felt that the action was premature.

Some descendants believe the belongings should be ceremonially buried while others think the belongings should be returned to the families after proper verification of descendancy. Then the families should be allowed to decide the final disposition of the belongings.

Calvin Spotted Elk emphasized the importance of remembering where the Lakota victims of Wounded Knee were from. Though the massacre occurred at Wounded Knee, Lakota leader Spotted Elk was from Cheyenne River and his camp was at Cherry Creek. For this reason, descendant Calvin believes people from Cheyenne River and Standing Rock should be considered throughout any discussion pertaining to the sacred belongings because these are the ancestral homelands of those who died at Wounded Knee.

Calvin Spotted Elk noted, “Respect between families is a core Lakota value and, in all matters, traditional Lakota values need to be adhered to.”

Afraid of Hawk believes that the belongings should be safely housed indefinitely on the Cheyenne River Reservation and brought out periodically to be viewed so that the Wounded Knee story will be told over and over to honor the ancestors who died there. She said, “The older (Wounded Knee) descendants don’t want the conflict (about the final disposition of the belongings) to continue to the next generation. We have a big responsibility and we have to take it on…I’m the voice (for my father and grandfather). I took that role upon myself to honor all my relatives. I do not want my children to have to take my place (in fighting for justice for Wounded Knee victims and descendants). I want justice (in my lifetime).

“There will be many more sacred belongings coming back home. The whole world is watching what we are doing. …”

(Contact Grace Terry at





Personal correspondence/interviews with Marlis Afraid of Hawk, Calvin and Michelle Spotted Elk, Brad Upton


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