Auction of war shirt angers Sioux leaders Garment reportedly worn by Crazy Horse

FBI investigates case

August 18, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Even from his secret grave, Crazy Horse continues to bedevil the establishment, this time a small Eastern Shore college and a prestigious New York auction house.

His war shirt -- or one purported to be his -- was sold in May by Washington College for $211,000. That action has raised the ire of the Sioux Indian Nation and the interest of the FBI.

Tribal leaders say the college and Sotheby's auction house violated federal laws that protect American Indian artifacts. They recently filed a complaint with the National Park Service, which turned it over to the Justice Department and the FBI.

The tattered buckskin shirt, beaded and decorated with buffalo strips and quill-wrapped human hair, was part of the Albee Collection. College officials said they decided to sell it because it was gathering dust.

"Our policy is to sell the things that we cannot use, so that we can convert them to things that we can use," said John Toll, the college president.

Besides, college officials say, the garment did not belong to the legendary warrior, even though a sign placed on the shirt by the college said otherwise.

The origin of the shirt may be in question, but not so the collection.

The items were donated to the Chestertown college 60 years ago by the widow of Capt. George Albee, a frontier scout and Medal of Honor winner. They were placed in a library display case, where a sign above the shirt read: "Believed to have been owned and worn by Crazy Horse," former students remember.

The collection stayed there until last year, when Washington College officials decided to clean house.

"These things were just taking up space, gathering dust, and nobody was interested in them anymore," said Alexander Jones, a member of the college board of visitors who handled the sale.

But Robert Gough, a lawyer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Crazy Horse estate, contends there are people very much interested in the shirt and its preservation -- his clients.

Gough said he told college officials six months before the sale that he wanted to examine the shirt to see if it should be returned to the tribe under federal repatriation laws. But he said that college officials told him that it was being restored and was ++ unavailable.

"They knew who I was, they knew that the family had an interest in it and the estate had an interest in it, and they did not cooperate at all," said Gough, of Rosebud, S.D.

Jones acknowledged that Gough contacted him in November while the collection was being appraised, but said the lawyer neglected to follow up until May, when the items were scheduled to be sold.

Gough filed the complaint alleging violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The law prohibits the sale of Native American human remains and any "cultural patrimony," which would include clothing worn by a tribal leader like Crazy Horse.

John Russell, a Justice Department spokesman, said the investigation is being handled by the FBI's New York office because that is where Sotheby's is.

Matthew Wiegman, a spokesman for Sotheby's, said the auction house's Indian experts are convinced that the shirt is not of Sioux origin. It was advertised by Sotheby's only as a Plateau Indian's "beaded and fringed hide war shirt" and was more likely worn by a Crow or some other Plains Indian, he said.

"This shirt is not a Sioux shirt. This could not have been made for Crazy Horse, absolutely not," Wiegman said.

He said the display case sign was based on bad information that was corrected when Sotheby's researchers checked Albee's Washington military records and his diaries.

"If there was a connection to Crazy Horse, it would have turned up in his diaries," he said.

Gough is skeptical of Sotheby's conclusions. Why, he asks, would an unknown collector spend $211,000 for a shirt appraised at $60,000 to $90,000?

The reason, he argues, is that the buyer knew of its reputed link to Crazy Horse, the legendary chief who was at Little Bighorn in 1876 and is buried in a secret location at Wounded Knee, S.D.

"I suspect that it was more than the buckskin and beadwork on the shirt that was being sold that day," said Gough, who also DTC noted that most Plains Indians buckskin shirts sell for less than $25,000.

Wiegman speculated that the shirt brought a high price because it was part of a collection belonging to Albee, an Indian War scout who won the nation's highest military honor in 1869 for repelling an Indian assault in Texas.

Jones said the college is not guilty of any federal violation. The collection, including the shirt, was advertised by Sotheby's in a catalog distributed nationwide, he said.

But Gough said the reports about the shirt filtered back to the tribe only in recent years, after a Cheyenne poet visited the college to give a talk to students.

"We don't have a lot of Sioux out that way, and the chance of one of them wandering into a college library in a small town in Maryland is pretty remote," he said.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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