Fighting to save family heritage

Shirt: Descendants of Crazy Horse have sued Washington College for auctioning off an artifact that may have once belonged to the famed warrior.

May 22, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,Sun Staff

He has been dead for more than 121 years now, stabbed in the back by a U.S. soldier during what he thought was a meeting called to halt killing on the American frontier. For the descendants of the famed Sioux warrior Crazy Horse, some degree of peace has arrived since then.

Trust is another matter.

In a case that underscores the generations-old struggle of American Indians trying to reclaim their heritage -- from moccasins to the bones of their ancestors -- Crazy Horse's family has filed a federal lawsuit against tiny Washington College on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

The charge: The college profited handsomely -- and illegally -- by selling a war shirt that may have belonged to the martyred chief.

The case wraps deceit, murder, money and the sale of human remains into one big, sloppy package. It has pitted the New Englandesque, $25,000-a-year college in Chestertown against the Lakota Sioux Indians on dusty reservations on the other side of the country.

The dispute has attracted national attention, led to a government investigation and grown more than a little bitter.

"We don't sell our relatives," said Seth Big Crow Sr., 61, Crazy Horse's great-grandson in South Dakota. "The people at the college, they'll sell anything they can to make money." Washington College officials once displayed the Indian clothing in their library, saying it was a war shirt worn by Crazy Horse. Now they say the shirt never belonged to him and that they were on firm ground, morally and legally, when they sold it.

"The college has not done this lightly," said Bonnie Travieso, chairman of Washington College's legal affairs committee. "We're sensitive to the issues involved with selling Indian relics, or important Indian relics, let's say."

But college officials ignored requests by Crazy Horse's family to examine the shirt to determine whether it was his and instead hired Sotheby's Auction House in New York to sell it.

The shirt fetched $211,000.

It was more than money and the question of ownership, though, that pushed Crazy Horse's family to file the lawsuit earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. It was a lack of trust: The Indians see no reason to put faith in an institution like Washington College, wealthy and 90 percent white.

Crazy Horse was killed in 1877 at the age of 34 at Fort Robinson, Neb. He had been under U.S. Army protection when an infantry man lunged at him with a bayonet, plunging it into his back and killing him, while trying to place him under arrest.

In the 1940s, the widow of Capt. George Albee, a frontier scout and winner of the Medal of Honor, donated to Washington College a collection of guns and Indian artifacts, including the tattered buckskin shirt, beaded and with quill-wrapped human hair dangling from its arms. She told college officials her husband had obtained the shirt and that it had belonged to Tasunke Witko, also known as Crazy Horse.

In a note to the college, the widow, Frederica Strong Albee, wrote " if ever it comes to pass that the College decides they don't have a place for my collections, they are to go to [my heirs]."

But in the 1970s, Albee's descendants became upset at how the college was handling the collection and demanded it back. They took back the guns but left the Indian artifacts with the college. (Lawyers for Crazy Horse's family contend the Albee descendants were unaware of the Indian artifacts, but the college says otherwise.)

"We believe any questions surrounding ownership were settled back then," said Travieso, the college's legal chairman. So the shirt remained with the college, where it and other artifacts were placed in a trophy case in the college library.

Word filtered back to Crazy Horse's family, and in 1995 a lawyer for the estate, Robert Gough of River Falls, Wisc., contacted college officials and asked to inspect it.

"That's where we ran into being stonewalled by the college," Gough said.

In 1995, Gough said, he was told by college officials he could not see the shirt because it was being sent out for conservation purposes and would not be returned for some time. In May of the next year, Sotheby's sold the shirt to a buyer it will not identify.

"Sotheby's informed us the shirt did not belong to Crazy Horse," said Travieso, the university attorney. "Knowing that, we felt no obligation to handle things any differently than we did. It was an Indian artifact, but not considered an important one. We expected to get about $50,000 for it."

Crazy Horse's family does not buy that. Why, they ask, was $211,000 paid for the shirt if it was an unimportant artifact? Why were they not allowed to examine it themselves? Why won't the owner of the shirt come forward and let them examine it now?

"Trust them?" said Big Crow, the great-grandson. "There's no way I'm going to take their word for it. The honorable thing would have been for them to get together with us and if it was ours, to return it. Rather than that, they ran with it, sold it and disregarded true ownership to make money off it."

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