Rare Crow and Cheyenne artifacts featured at new Buffalo Bill Center exhibit

Rare artifact exhibit - Apsaalooke ceremonial horse bridle

Beautiful Crow dancer Nai Nai Wyles, 8, has been competing since she was 3.

On Saturday, June 15, the Paul Dyck Plains Indian Buffalo Culture Gallery opened at the Buffalo Bill Center in Cody. The center’s weekend festivities also featured a pow-wow that has been held annually for 32 years. About 30 tribes attended. A new Smithsonian firearms display and a chance to see up close rescued raptors from their rehab center were additional draws for the large crowd. Curator Emma Hansen said the exhibit featured 80 of over 2,000 objects donated to the museum by the Dyck family and the Paul Dyck Foundation in 2007. Paul Dyck was an Arizona artist who was inspired in his work by his extraordinary collection. Born in 1917 in Alberta, Canada, he lived among the Blackfoot tribe in Canada. Dyck’s son, John, along with his wife, two sons and daughter-in-law attended the Friday night members’ opening that drew 400 people.

“We are highlighting the buffalo cultural era of the late 18th century to the 1890’s, about 100 years basically,” said Hansen. “It emphasized that changes were taking place particularly during the last quarter of the 19th century-people moving in, starvation and disease.” Many items belong to the Crow, Cheyenne and Blackfeet. The Friday event included a ceremony for the artifacts performed by Crow medicine man Heywood Big Day. “He did a smudging and a blessing. Earlier, we sent out for a lot of sweetgrass and put it in certain cases that had items with a particularly powerful spiritual quality,” she explained. “We placed the shields together-they are very powerful, and the bonnets together as symbols of honor. The bear claw necklace had a similar function among central plains men as well as the honor shirts and pipes.”

Also in the exhibit are ceremonial bonnets of the Blackfoot and Arapahoe as well as Crow and Blackfoot horse gear. The horse gear, said Hansen, “was very, very important.” A black horse m a n n e q u i n h e a d w a s arrayed in an Apsaalooke ceremonial bridle of painted red deer skin and long, hanging, detailed iron-work that looked ready for a medieval knight as well as a plains warrior. The exhibit included spiritual items such as a sacred Apsaalooke thunderbird charm of beads, sinew and sage grouse and an eagle bone whistle with eagle plumes. There were dramatic exhibits of a long Lakota dog soldier headdress with buffalo horns and Lakota owl society sash, both of deep red and black. A dog soldier would stake his lance and fight to the death. An owl society member pledged to die for his comrades. His bonnet, like the sash, was made of owl and eagle feathers.

Rare items such as a Blackfoot women’s buffalo society bonnet and an accompanying picture of the women fully arrayed lent an extraordinary dimension to the exhibit. “We actually received three grizzly claw necklaces although they are also quite rare.” A popular hit was the painted muslin mural portraying scenes of the Battle of the Little Big Horn created by White Swan, a Crow warrior who scouted for Major Marcus Reno and participated early in the battle. There were many rare and fine pieces such as a small child’s exquisite red quillwork vest, extremely stylized, carved wooden and inlaid pipe stems and a pair of ceremonial moccasins with full beadwork extending over the bottom soles.

Pow-wow dancers and singers along with their families are always given passes to the center to view their history. Hansen said many schools bring Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone and Blackfeet children to the museum each year. One Crow family was surprised to find some of their ancestors’ belongings displayed in the general exhibit. “I got chills,” said Pauline Decrane. Her son, Ethaniel Decrane was a dancer in the pow-wow. “We come every year,” said Decrane.

“We had a very positive response from both tribal and non-tribal attendees,” said Hansen. She said many native artists enjoyed the opportunity to view old and unique designs of beadwork and crafts. For example, a Lakota legging depicted firearms rendered in beads.

The Dyck exhibit will become a permanent collection with objects rotated periodically from the outstanding collection. Other portions of the collection were purchased by private parties. “We have several projects in the works. We plan to do this as a permanent gallery with rotating exhibits. We also are developing a traveling exhibit that will go national and probably international. There is a lot of interest. It will consist of 150 objects, and a book or catalogue to go with it.” Funding has already been received for the project from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The tour is scheduled to start in 2015. The objects represent aspects of life during both the rise and fall of Native Buffalo Culture, moving many visitors to view this rare and often sacred collection with reverence.