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.
The Archeological Resource Protection Act, passed in 1978, made it illegal to excavate archaeological resources — including Indian remains and artifacts — on federal and tribal lands without a permit.
In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) enabled tribes to recover Indian remains and artifacts housed in museums or collections receiving federal funds.
It also prohibited the sale of human remains, cultural artifacts or funerary objects taken from federal or tribal lands without a permit.
None of that existed when the library in Barre acquired Big Foot’s hair.
Massachusetts officials told Little Finger this story:
The government had hired private contractors to dig a mass grave and bury the dead after the Wounded Knee Massacre. Some of those workers took pipes and other items off the bodies. Worried about being caught, they apparently decided to bury them nearby.
“They came back later and dug them up,” Little Finger says. “After they had gone back home to the east, they knew this guy in Barre, an amateur anthropologist, I guess.
And they offered these things to him for sell, as many as a hundred of them, which he bought.”
That collector kept them in a trunk for a time, Little Finger was told, then eventually donated them to the local library.
Wounded Knee descendants in South Dakota didn’t become aware of the items until the mid-1990s, Little Finger says. He had been out in that area at a speaking engagement when he heard about them.
Returning the lock
Eventually, several descendants made claims on the lock of hair. Though the Barre Library received no federal financial aid, and thus wasn’t required under NAGPRA to return the hair, it felt doing so “was the right thing to do,” board president Gloria Castriotta says today.
“The only thing was, we wanted to make sure it was done properly, that it went to the rightful heir. So, it took a lot of investigation.”
The Barre Library board wanted to make sure that any item to be repatriated went to the lineal descendants.
That meant Little Finger had to go to tribal court to prove he was a legitimate heir. He could trace his lineage back six generations.”My grandfather, John Little Finger, was Big Foot’s grandson,” Little Finger says.
“He was with Big Foot at the massacre. He was 15 at the time. He survived and made his home afterward in Oglala.”
Earlier this year, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court ruled that Leonard Little Finger rightfully was the administrator of Big Foot’s estate, including his lock of hair. So on July 31, 1999, he and his group flew to Barre.
Little Finger has formed a nonprofit, state-chartered foundation called Sitanka Tiwahe, or Big Foot’s Family. He intends to use the foundation to create a cultural resource and spiritual center at Oglala, complete with a museum that would preserve the history of his family and people.
“I have a chief’s blanket that very well may have belonged to Big Foot,” he says. “We have pipe bags that go back several hundred years, too. We want to establish a facility where they can be preserved.”
For now, however, Little Finger is not able to bring back any of the pipes or other items from the Barre Library. For while the spirit of NAGPRA allows for the return of items taken from burial scaffolds, such as clothing and human remains, it sees much less funerary attachment to such sacred artifacts as pipes.
“I can’t say that we have discussed” returning any of the other items, Castriotta says.
Little Finger still hopes to pursue that dialogue some day. For now, however, he is content to have brought his great-great-grandfather’s lock of hair back home.
This past August, he and other Big Foot descendants conducted one of the seven sacred Lakota rites –the keeping and releasing of the soul — in a ceremony that lasted four days.
They said prayers and sang songs. At the end of the four days, they burned Big Foot’s hair, carrying their prayers to heaven in its smoke as the ashes fell to the ground.
“I don’t have any doubt that it was Big Foot’s hair,” Little Finger says now. “But then it was never a matter of trying to determine the validity of it for me.
“I simply took it for what it was worth. To me, it was a very powerful connection, in some ways a very sad connection, to Big Foot. And because of it, I felt like I was there. I really felt like I knew the pain of Wounded Knee.”