CODY, Wyo. — At first, Anna Marie Shriver didn’t know what to make of the headdress with trailing buffalo-hair dreadlocks she had just unpacked in the scrupulously clean basement of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center here.
“It was like, ‘What is this?’ ” she said.
Feathers were delicately intertwined in the buffalo hair, and a small pair of buffalo horns poked from the top. Mounted on a specially made form, it looks oddly reminiscent of an ancient bridal veil.
The headdress was among the 2,000 items in the extraordinary Paul Dyck Plains Indian Buffalo Culture Collection acquired by the Buffalo Bill Center’s Plains Indian Museum in 2007. Shriver, hired four years ago to catalog the priceless assemblage, just finished unpacking it in January.
There were more than a few surprises in the containers that arrived from the late Paul Dyck’s ranch in Rimrock, Ariz.
“It’s amazing,” Shriver said. “We didn’t know what we had.”
After researching collections in other museums and with some information that Dyck had included, the staff was able to identify the headdress as a Blackfeet woman’s ceremonial bonnet.
“We don’t see a lot of women’s headdress, but they did have women’s societies,” said Rebecca West, assistant curator at the museum. “Many times when we were unpacking we’d see things we hadn’t seen before.”
“It was like my birthday or Christmas every day,” Shriver said. “It ranged from spectacular shirts to beautiful scrapers that a woman would have used.”
Some of the collection’s most significant pieces are being readied for the June 15 grand opening of a new gallery permanently dedicated to the collection.
Curator Emma Hansen and her team have the unenviable task of selecting 80 or 90 items for display in the museum’s new Paul Dyck Plains Indian Buffalo Culture Gallery. At the same time they are trying to come up with a list of 150 pieces to include in a traveling exhibit that will be ready in the next couple of years for loan to national and international museums. Neither exhibit will be static. Items will be rotated out of storage from time to time, she said.
The museum’s Native American Advisory Board was consulted about what its members considered the most important and culturally significant items.
“We tried to get as much tribal representation as possible,” Hansen said. “We also looked at the artistry and for things that tell a story.”
Dyck’s focus through decades of acquisitions was the buffalo days between the late 1700s and mid-1800s.
“Change was just starting to happen,” Hansen said. “They had already been exposed to trappers and missionaries, but there were no reservations. You’re right at the tipping point.”
Hansen said evidence of the transition and the influence of Euro-Americans on the Plains tribes can been seen in the Dyck collection. Early pieces were fashioned with natural dyes, trade beads and porcupine quills. Designs were mostly geometric. Commercial dyes and a proliferation of beads and color were identified with later items. Floral designs also began to appear. Clothing had a more European cut.
Differences between men’s and women’s items can also be seen in the collection, Hansen said. Women’s items were usually decorated with geometric patterns, while men’s furnishings were more similar to pictographs with scenes of battle and hunting.
Much of the Plains Indian material in collections across the nation, including Dyck’s, came from Lakota Sioux, in part because they were the largest group on the Northern Plains, the curator said. Crow and Cheyenne items were also well-represented.
As each piece was unpacked, it was measured, described and photographed on a catalog form. Shriver said that its condition was also noted. Most of the collection was in remarkable shape, museum staff said. Even leather approaching 200 years old appeared supple as new.
“Paul took really good care of his collection,” Hansen said.
Anything that needed cleaning or conservation was sent to Chief Conservator Beverly Perkins’ basement lab. She has a restrained hand, doing only what’s necessary for conservation.
“We don’t want it to look new again. We never replace beads or quills,” Perkins said. “We document everything we do and we take before and after photographs.”
The lab has special dry-cleaning equipment to remove dust and dirt. Spit-on cotton swabs is usually all it takes to clean beadwork, although Perkins had to use a scalpel to pry dirt from a heavily decorated leather coat.
“This piece has been here for five years. That’s a record for me,” she said. “Usually I get things out of here in a couple of weeks.”
If repairs must be made to preserve the integrity of an item, she uses minnow-weight fishing line. In the summer months, five to seven interns work beside her, learning the delicate processes.
Work tables in the lab are covered with elaborately decorated pieces — a Sioux pipe stem, a colorful arrow quiver and accompanying bow, snow goggles made of horn, Sioux moccasins covered in bright red dyed quills, an engraved rawhide Blackfoot parfleche bag.
A misconception Perkins wants to fix is that grave goods make up any part of the collection.
“For one thing, you can’t put something like this together in a few days,” she explained, pointing to a pair of moccasins with a complex quill-work design.
In the new gallery, paid for by a grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, collections manager Connie Vunch is preparing mounts to display pieces of the collection. Some, like a Hidatsa painted buffalo robe, are large and heavy, and special care must be taken to avoid pressure points.
The robe has an intricate design of feathers radiating from the center.
“It’s a woman’s design,” Hansen said. “It would have been used as bedding.”
Down the hall in yet another room, Vunch and preparator Jeff Rudolph work among rare men’s shirts and women’s dresses. Richly quilled and beaded horse masks stare down from the shelves. Blackfeet warriors probably decked their horses in this colorful regalia as they rode through camp after a successful hunt or battle.
Nearby are shields made of rawhide and covered with a painted tanned hide.
“The design would have come to the man in a dream or vision,” Hansen said. “It would provide certain types of war medicine.”
On one of the shields, a warrior has painted a grizzly bear claw, an emblem popular among the Crow.
People who have worked with the collection over the years have their favorite pieces. Willis McDonald, a retired Wall Street attorney who handled the contract for the sale/donation of the collection, said he had seen only a portion of it, but was most excited about the warrior shirts.
“They were in the millions in value,” he said. “To be able to see one was a treat.”
Cindy Dyck, Paul’s daughter-in-law, admired the children’s items.
“One pair of moccasins is that big,” she said, holding her fingers a few inches apart.
She loved the finely decorated cradle boards, tiny shirts and dresses and the dolls. Sure to draw a lot of public interest are two lovingly crafted dolls — one a 20-inch Sioux male figure and the other a 29-inch Cheyenne girl doll. They will be displayed in a jewel case in the new gallery.
Although much of the collection represents clothing and gear used by men, several women on the museum staff say they were drawn to the items associated with the female side of Plains Indian life.
In the buffalo days, women handled the bead and quill work, as well as preparing the hides. They worked tiny beads into intricate patterns by whatever light was available — sometimes a few short hours of winter sun or a campfire when the day’s chores were done.
“It’s just amazing to me to see what they were capable of,” Hansen said.