Last summer, in the countryside near Oglala, Leonard Little Finger held a lock of hair in his hands and knew the agony of Wounded Knee.
He and six others had just returned from New England, where they had claimed a lock that reportedly had been cut from the scalp of his great-great-grandfather, Chief Big Foot, more than a century earlier at the Wounded Knee massacre.
For decades, it had been part of a library collection in Barre, Mass. Now, as Little Finger prepared to return it to Mother Earth, he believed that he could almost hear the cries of the more than 250 Lakota men, women and children slaughtered on Dec. 29, 1890, by the Seventh Cavalry.
“Even though 110 years had gone by, I felt like I had become part of what happened,” Little Finger, 61, says from the Loneman School in Oglala, where he is director of Lakota Studies.
“It was kind of awesome,” he says. “All of a sudden, here is something that is a physical part of that massacre. And it’s like it puts you right into it.”
That he was given the hair at all speaks to a dramatic shift in societal attitudes the past 20 years.
Tribal remains and artifacts once routinely sought out for museums, classrooms and private collections now are being returned en masse to the lands and people from which they came.
Several federal laws have hastened that return, or at least stemmed their removal from the land.