CODY, Wyo. — Six years after the Buffalo Bill Historical Center acquired the largest, most representative private collection of Plains Indian artifacts known to exist, museum staff and volunteers here are preparing to introduce it to the public.
The general opening of the Paul Dyck Plains Indian Buffalo Culture Gallery has been set for Saturday, June 15. Thousands are expected to view 80 to 90 artifacts in a 1,800-square-foot space designed exclusively for them.
Celebration of the opening will coincide with the annual Plains Indian Museum Powwow scheduled for June 15-16.
With the BBHC already considered among the nation’s top Plains Indian museums, the Paul Dyck collection “increases our bestness,” said Buffalo Bill Center Executive Director Bruce Eldredge.
“It increases our stature,” he said. “It really sets us apart from other collections.”
Many museums wanted the 2,000-piece assemblage, but Dyck’s heirs and the foundation Dyck created selected the Wyoming museum as the best place for his life’s work.
“We wanted it here,” said the collector’s son, John Dyck, who is also director of the Paul Dyck Foundation. “We went to other museums to see if another place might be better, but there is no place like this.”
John and his wife, Cindy, were in Cody early this month, meeting with museum board members and checking the progress of preparations for the unveiling. Most of the rare and often colorful items in the collection have never been publicly displayed.
“I was there when they packed it and there was stuff I’d never seen before,” Cindy Dyck said.
Shields, dolls, horse gear, ceremonial shirts, toys, weapons, buffalo-hide tepees, tepee furnishings and headdress came with the collection, as did historic guns, photographs and an extensive library. One of the guns may have been used at Little Bighorn in 1876, a watershed in Plains Indian history.
Many of the artifacts are elegantly decorated with colorful trade beads, natural paints, dyed porcupine quills and feathers. Among the most prized items are necklaces made from the long, broad claws of the now-vanished prairie grizzly bear.
The heart of the collection dates from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s. Since most items were created from organic material, few artifacts survive from those early dates.
Paul Dyck, who died at age 88 in 2006, had amassed his vast and valuable collection over decades. His intention was always to keep it together as a tribute to and a reminder of the Buffalo Culture, John Dyck said.
The collection, worth tens of millions of dollars, was acquired by a combination of donations from the Paul Dyck Foundation and gifts from the Jim Nielson family of Cody and the estate of Margaret S. Coe, who served as BBHC board chair for 20 years. Both Nielson and Coe were friends of the Rimrock, Ariz., ethnographer, artist and rancher who built the collection.
The exact appraised value of the collection and the donations has not been publicized. Museum Curator Emma Hansen, a member of the Pawnee Tribe, said there is no way to put a monetary value on art and artifacts that could never be replaced.
Paul Dyck was not in it for the money, said Rusty Rokita of Hardin, his longtime friend and a member of the museum’s Plains Indian Advisory Board. He spurned many offers to sell pieces of the collection, Rokita said, though he occasionally traded items for others that would make it more complete.
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“In part, what made the collection so incredible was not only the remarkable age of many of the objects, but also that he consciously sought to have one of each kind of object from each of the 27 to 29 tribes who lived on the Great Plains in the pre-1850s era,” Rokita said.
Dyck’s goal during much of his later life was to build his own museum next to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument near Hardin. He even purchased a tract of land adjacent to the park entrance. But the years caught up with him.
In his final period of failing health, Dyck made arrangements through his foundation to loan the collection to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s Plains Indian Museum, which he had helped design in the 1970s. There it could be properly stored and protected, John Dyck said.
Up to that point, the Cody museum had been unable to come to terms on actual acquisition of the collection, said Nielson, who is a member of the museum board as well as a key donor.
“But we kept in touch,” he said. “We would visit him down at his place out of Flagstaff.”
Days before Dyck’s death, an agreement for the purchase/donation of the collection was reached with the Paul Dyck Foundation, said Willis McDonald, a retired Wall Street attorney now living in Cody. McDonald and the foundation’s lawyer, Seymour Sachs, who was from Brooklyn, hit it off immediately when they met in Arizona, he said. Within a day, McDonald had drawn up a contract.
Terms of the agreement called for a down payment with regular installments to follow. But some members of the board didn’t like the idea of making payments.
“It didn’t make sense to me,” Nielson said. “It looked to me like we ought to pay for it outright.”
So he donated the money needed to pay the Dyck estate.
“It’s a great thing for Native Americans and I know it’s a good thing for the museum,” Nielson said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity, a wonderful chance to educate the public about Native Americans. I’m glad I was able to have a part of it.”
With grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Save America’s Treasures program administered by the National Park Service, Hansen said the museum was able to hire a full-time specialist to unpack, research and catalog the collection. The grants also provided money to build special cases to display and store the delicate items.
In addition to the museum staff, countless volunteer hours have gone into processing the collection, she said. Students hoping to get into master's degree programs in art conservation have come from all over the world during the past several summers to work with conservator Beverly Perkins, cleaning and safeguarding the artifacts.
Native American scholars and cultural leaders from many tribes, as well as the museum’s Native American Advisory Board, have been consulted on proper handling of the items, Hansen said. They have been especially helpful in dealing with sacred objects stored separately from the rest in a restricted room.
“That’s one of the reasons we liked it up here,” John Dyck said. He said his father was meticulous in handling sacred items entrusted to him, and insisted that proper respect continue after him.
Twice a year, in the spring and fall, Crow spiritual leader Heywood Big Day comes to the museum and offers traditional blessings.
“He was a good friend of Paul’s,” Hansen said.