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Detail of Ho Chunk Bag (NMNH catalog no. E357877b)
Traditional Care of Culturally Sensitive Collections:
Creating a Box for a Cheyenne Buffalo Skull

In 1903, James Mooney collected a ceremonial buffalo skull from the altar of the Cheyenne Sun Dance held that July near Cantonment, Oklahoma. Mooney was an anthropologist working for the Smithsonian who collaborated extensively with the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa and Cherokee tribes documenting their way of life at the turn of the century. The ceremonial buffalo skull was eventually incorporated into an exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History on the importance of the buffalo to the Plains tribes.


View of the 1903 Cheyenne Sun Dance in Oklahoma. Photo by Charles Carpenter, The Field Museum.

Following a consultation visit from the Southern Cheyenne in 1997, this buffalo skull was removed from exhibit because the tribal representatives considered it inappropriate for public viewing. They recognized it as a ceremonial and sacred object which is still alive with power. It is the policy of the Department of Anthropology to take into consideration traditional indigenous practices in conjunction with standard museum practices in the management of culturally sensitive material.

In their request to remove the buffalo skull from exhibit, the tribal representatives expressed their desire to work with the Repatriation Office in determining appropriate care according to ceremonial standards in addition to museum standards of collections care. Betsy Bruemmer, formerly of the Repatriation Office, helped to coordinate this on-going traditional care project, working with tribal representatives, staff from the Anthropology Conservation Lab and the Office of Exhibits Central to develop a mutually beneficial solution to ensure the buffalo skull's spiritual and physical preservation.

Betsy Bruemmer of the Repatriation Office

Betsy Bruemmer, formerly of the Repatriation Office, National Museum of Natural History, and Gordon Yellowman of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma review the progress of the project. Photo by Bill Billeck, National Museum of Natural History.

After the buffalo skull was removed from the exhibit case, Mr. William Fletcher, a Sun Dance priest and tribal elder of the Cheyenne, Gordon Yellowman, Cheyenne Chief and George Horse Capture Sr. (Gros Ventre or A'aninin) conducted an appropriate ceremony at the Museum Support Center to calm the energy of the buffalo skull and enable it to be at rest. Following the ceremony, Mr. Fletcher suggested that it would be preferable to store the buffalo skull upside down and facing east. To accomplish this without damaging the skull, Greta Hansen and Betsy Bruemmer constructed an ethafoam mount which allows the weight of the buffalo skull to rest on its forehead where the bone is the strongest. It became apparent that a storage container or enclosure would be needed to protect the horns that protrude on each side. This would also enable the buffalo skull to be covered, further protecting it physically and spiritually. Mr. Yellowman suggested constructing a twelve-sided storage container in the shape of a Sun Dance Lodge.

Plexiglas Box

The Plexiglas box in progress, shown with muslin covered lid. Photo by Betsy Bruemmer, National Museum of Natural History.

Craig Huzway of the Office of Exhibits Central conceived of the solution to construct the storage container out of Plexiglas. He crafted two layers, inner and outer shells that could act as a sandwich for future paintings. He also designed a lid that would support a covering of unbleached muslin. This will protect the buffalo skull from dirt and inappropriate viewing while enabling it to breathe. In keeping with the idea of the storage container modeled after a Sun Dance Lodge, the lid was created out of a framework of Plexiglas pieces, pitched slightly to resemble the roof of the lodge. Four specific pieces were made out of red and black Plexiglas at the suggestion of Mr. Yellowman, to reflect the Cheyenne Society Lodge poles. LeAnn Lewis, a seamstress on staff at the Museum Support Center sewed the muslin cover onto the frame of the lid based on the design of a teepee cover.

Four paintings have been created by Gordon Yellowman and are to be matted and inserted within the walls of the Plexiglas storage container. He has drawn inspiration from photographs taken at the 1903 Sun Dance by Charles Carpenter of the Field Museum.

The combination of material, spiritual and cultural values of the Southern Cheyenne and the National Museum of Natural History has led to a greater awareness, understanding and appreciation of each other and the appropriate care for the buffalo skull following traditional Cheyenne and museum standards.

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