This is about returning a family heirloom, an artifact from Little Big Horn, to the Oglala Sioux.
To The Descendants
One of the reasons we are going out west is to hand over to its rightful owners an Indian war club. It has been in my family’s possession for a few generations. I first remember holding it as a young child – a long, leather-wrapped handle attached to a smooth, sharply oval white stone about 7 inches wide. As I thwacked into my palm, it had a spring to it, and I could easily imagine its power as a weapon. The story from my father was that it came from his grandfather who was a surveyor for a while. He worked on a job at Little Big Horn, where he found the club. A lot of family information is unreliable, but I know that it’s possible that the story is true. As I learned about the battle and the history of the Native Americans, the artifact’s beauty became even more powerful, and it seemed strange to me that it was in our hands. A few years before he died, my father asked me if I would like to have it, and I said yes, very much. It was a true treasure. But it was also a story that begged resolution. When I told him that I would like to give it back to the Indians, he said that I would have to wait to do that. After he died, his wife gave it to me.
It’s been a meaningful experience for me to hold it over the years, to gradually connect to the people who made it long ago, and to realize that there are people alive now for whom the club is a family heirloom with a deep and important history. The Northern Plains tribes fought long and valiantly to hold on to their homeland and way of life. This may be one of the weapons used in a rare and great victory. It was at the Battle of Little Big Horn that they defeated an enemy hell-bent on wiping them out – Custer and the U.S. Cavalry. For the sons and daughters of its makers this club may be an inspiring reminder of their tribes’ fierce resistance to injustice and annihilation.
This trip started as a longing to return to Montana where my mother’s father had a ranch, but I soon realized that going to that area would bring me very close to Little Big Horn. I could personally hand the club over to its rightful heirs. We took pictures of it and tried contacting the Peabody Museum at Harvard, aware that they had organized a massive repatriation of artifacts from their collection to some western tribes. No reponse. We started doing our own research. Looking on line, it was evident that the club could have been made a number of tribes – Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho – who were present at the battle. We decided to contact tribal representatives ourselves. We have contacted a tribal representative of the Oglala Sioux and hope to set up the return.
Pine Ridge Reservation, The Home of the Oglala Lakota of the Sioux Nation
After an early morning walk out into the sere landscape of the Badlands, we started our drive to the visitors’ center at White River on the Pine Ridge Reservation to begin the process of handing over the War Club. It was a small building with a tepee set up outside, and the flag of the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation flew overhead. To the attending ranger inside I explained what I had – the War Club from the battle of Little Big Horn (the Greasy Grass), and asked where we should take it. The ranger, Sally O’Rourke, directed me to another ranger, M. J. Bull Bear, explaining that he was the son of a chief, and that they were officials of the tribe, with connections to the Oglala College and Heritage Center. We brought it into their office, where they had carefully cleared one of the desks and brought out latex gloves in order to handle it. A third ranger joined us while Mr. Bull Bear opened the box and lifted it out. One of them noted that the stone was most likely Black Hills Alabaster. I was quietly brimming over with emotion. This was a treasured piece of identification that may link the club more certainly to the area tribes. The rangers were very quiet, very curious, respectful. As they looked it over, one chuckled, asking if there was any blood on it. There was a small terra cotta colored line on it – they said it might be iron oxide, which had been used for paint back in the day.
They asked me to write a brief explanation of what I knew about it – my great-grandfather found it while on a surveying job on the Little Big Horn battleground; it must have been sometime around 1885; it stayed with our family until I inherited it; and here it is, offered humbly to its rightful owners. We printed it out, and they asked me to sign it, which I did.
Sally O’Rourke spoke movingly of how rare it is, to get something back like this. She described a recent Pow Wow where a descendant of one of the U.S. cavalry survivors of Little Big Horn presented the assembly with the medals the army had awarded his ancestor for that battle, saying that those medals weren’t deserved. M. J. said that since the the repatriation act, many objects have trickled in and are now on display at the college and used to educate tribespeople and the general public about native history and culture. I was very glad that we’d brought the War Club here.
I told them that the club had been very important to me, as I learned more about it, about the culture of the Indians, and the their battle for survival. Sally said it was an odd feeling, to have this come back. She welled up, as did I. We took pictures and traded contact information.
Mark and I walked out of the office to look around and when we came back M.J. was holding the club like a baby, a living and fragile thing, as Sally was wreathing it with the smoke of some sage smoldering in a shallow stone bowl. She approached us as we stood in the doorway and fanned smoke around us, too. They said they were smudging the club. Its owner was a spirit, and he had been looking for it. They were purifying it for him. They purified all of us there.
They wondered if my great grandfather had been a surveyor for the railroad. They showed us an 1890 map of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud area produced by the Army Corps of Engineers which showed the F E and M Y RR snaking up around the Little Big Horn. I’ll do some more research on my ancestor with that in mind. He might have been in the army corps of engineers, for all I know. The rangers said that so many German and Irish immigrants joined the army to get a leg up in those days – not so different from many families now. On my father’s side, my ancestors came over in that same wave, from Denmark and Britain, and spent some years on the northern plains.
The third ranger gave us a lot of very interesting information as he showed us around the many photos and displays . We saw pictures of many of the men we have read and heard about, including Sitting Bull and Spotted Eagle. There are no photos of Crazy Horse – just vivid stories of his brilliant leadership, tactical and moral. He never signed a treaty with the U.S. A treaty stems from a mutual recognition of conflicting rights. There was no conflict in Crazy Horse’s mind. The Indians’ territory was theirs, always had been and always will be. The U.S. army lured him to one of their forts under the pretext of talks, a truce, and stabbed him in the back. He was dead at age 30. The ranger said that the Sioux were the only nation that ever defeated the U.S. Crazy Horse and the northern plains nations were formidable warriors.
As they talked, the theme of betrayals and hostility as a matter of United States policy sounded again and again – the annihilation of the buffalo, the Sioux economic base; Sioux couldn’t vote and their religion was illegal until very recently; and alcohol, brought in by whites, demoralized, destabilized and shredded the social fiber.
Just before we left, M.J. said good bye and walked out, gingerly carrying the club, repacked and sealed up. Sally recommended a good route through the rez. The other ranger pointed to the map and said, “That road is holy.” He looked slyly at me. “Full of holes.” Since we were continuing down to Wounded Knee, Sally suggested that we stop in for lunch at Bette’s Kitchen. She told us that Bette operated a nice lunch place. And that she was Black Elk’s great-granddaughter.
Bette’s place was perched on a grassy hill with a big kitchen garden and tables under pine-bough covered arbor.
It was hot, so she had us come inside to have our meal of buffalo burgers and fries – delicious.
Her youthful grandson graciously waited on us, and Bette came over mid-way through to have us sign her guest book. A dozen or more people had signed just the day before. She makes very good food and does a good business. She was a slight, elderly woman with a long and narrow face. Her hair was curled and long.
All over the walls, were family pictures, many in traditional dress, many on horseback, many in military uniform. On a little table to the side was a collection of books about Black Elk.
As we finished our burgers, Bette came over and gave us some fresh carrot cake, on the house. It was high and tender, not too sweet, with a strong taste of clove. Again, very nice.
While we were there a young woman came in, chatting with the family as her children played outside. She and the little ones spoke what I assume was Lakota. The children’s faces were as broad as little moons. We glimpsed her again a couple of days later at the trail head at Harney Peak in the Black Hills, the sacred center of the Lakota universe, where Black Elk had his life-changing vision.
We went on to Wounded Knee – let the pictures suffice for an incredibly moving experience –
As we drove back a huge cloud mounted up ahead of us in the otherwise crystal blue sky. We could see the dark sheet of rain beneath it. When we got back, the wind had dragged kettles off the table, and even turned our stove sideways. Still, in the distance, stood the magnificent cloud, glowing more and more in the evening light. I couldn’t help but think of another time a cloud like that presented itself. We were at Black Lake in our kayaks, watching the eastern sky. There it was, a monumental cloud reflecting the intensifying light from the west. It really struck a deep chord. I remember saying to Mark that it made me think of gratitude – how it wells up inside, and is really a reflection of somebody else’s light. A couple of days later, I got word that my father was dying. I spoke of that bright cloud, that gratitude at his funeral. As I watched that cloud after our day in Pine Ridge, I thought again of gratitude.
I am thankful for the turn of events that brought me to this point, and honored to be the one to carry out a simple return of a simple, yet very important object. It was a very big wheel that had to turn to get to this point, and I think many people helped to turn it. I thank the Oglala Sioux for their continuous struggle for the dignity of human beings who live on, and of this earth. I may live a very different life, but I am certain that their well-being is fundamental to mine. I am deeply grateful to them.
That night the wind blew so hard that the tent was almost flat on top of us. In the distance I saw the cloud, still in the same place, lightening flashing unceasingly beneath it. It didn’t rain. Black Elk described the Thunder Beings visiting him when he finally carried out his vision, enacting it with his tribe. The cloud visited him with lightening and a great, purifying wind. He wasn’t afraid of the cloud anymore.
The rangers said they would let us know what happens with the club, and we said that we’d send the pictures, and whatever else we learn about how it was found. After spending a couple of wondrous days in the Black Hills – I’ll write about that later – we visited the Little Big Horn Battlefield. There, in a display case in the visitors’ center was a war club, the twin of the one I had just brought back:
As we drove toward Wounded Knee, I realized with a clear jolt something should have been plain all along: I gave them back their war club. I want them to keep fighting. However they choose to do it, I want them to stay strong and keep going. For our human dignity.
Next Up: The Black Hills, The Center of the World