The Paul Dyck Plains Indian Buffalo Culture Gallery opening Saturday provides special detail and nuance to the story of Plains Indian people.
Plains Indian Museum Curator Emma Hansen says the more than 2,000-piece collection amassed by the late Arizona artist Paul Dyck, and acquired by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in 2007, contains many rare artifacts showing how Plains Indians reacted to trade with American settlers and early life on the reservation.
“The Plains Indian Museum is recognized for showing the story, history and culture of Plains Indian people through their own art,” Hansen said. “This acquisition gives us a chance to expand that story and tell it in a more complete way.
“Many earlier items (late 1700s-1890), as well as weapons and rare women’s ceremonial pieces that we didn’t have and other museums don’t have, are featured,” she added. “The collection focuses on how people lived before a great deal of change took place.”
That change began with the creation of reservations in 1851 under the Indian Appropriations Act and culminated in the depletion of great bison herds the Plains Indian people once depended on for survival. The period also was marked by a number of bloody battles such as at Little Big Horn.
By the end of the 19th century, tribes were no longer able to travel beyond reservation boundaries to hunt or collect other traditional foods.
The new gallery on the lower floor of the museum is dedicated solely to the collection’s display and “explores the relationship between art, culture and environment for Plains Indian peoples at a critical period in their history,” museum spokesman Nancy McClure said.
With space to display more than 80 objects, items from the collection will be periodically rotated.
“We selected pieces to display that showcase tribal and time-period diversity in the collection,” Hansen said, adding that nearly 30 tribes are represented.
Completion of the gallery and plans for a traveling exhibition starting in 2015 were made possible through grant funding. They also are working on a book inspired by the collection, Hansen added.
Born in 1917 and raised in Alberta, Canada, among the Blackfeet tribe, Paul Dyck was raised to be a collector and artist.
By the later half of his life Dyck fully embraced his upbringing by continuing the collection his father started in 1886 and employing the painting skills learned during an art apprenticeship with his uncle in his youth.
The Paul Dyck Foundation reported in a biography of its namesake that he used his art training to finance a journey to the West before later purchasing and running Verde Ranch in Rimrock, Ariz. He also served a stint in the Navy during World War II.
He continued to use art to make a living, but “it was in 1953, Dyck is known to have said, ‘All of a sudden I could paint,’” the foundation wrote. His art was inspired by the Plains Indian life in an era he identified as the “Buffalo Culture” from the late 1700s-1890.
As his reputation as an artist and friendships with Plains Indian tribes grew, so did the extensive collection of Native American artifacts started by his father. Dyck furnished his Arizona house near Flagstaff with one of the world’s largest private collections of Plains Indian artifacts.
“His father started the collection and he took up the work by trading around and emphasizing the Plains Indians and Buffalo culture,” Hansen said.
A longtime dream of opening his own museum near the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana never materialized. In the last months of his life, Dyck decided the museum in Cody was an appropriate place for his collection. He died in 2006 at the age of 88.
A portion of the collection was donated to the museum in 2007 by Dyck’s family and the Paul Dyck Foundation, and remaining items were purchased through the Jim Nielson family and Peg Coe estate.
It took museum staffers six years to research, catalogue and conserve the collection. With $350,000 in funding from the Save America’s Treasures Foundation, additional staff, students and researchers were called on to assist in unpacking and recording each object.
“The Dyck Collection has long been considered by art historians, ethnologists and historians to be the most comprehensive privately held assemblage of Plains Indian arts and related historical materials documenting the lives and cultures of Native people of the Great Plains,” Hansen said.
On display in the gallery are items depicting various aspects of Plains Indian life during the Buffalo Culture era: everything from leadership to women’s crafts, ceremony, horsemanship and weaponry.
A rare bear claw necklace made of otter hide and adorned with grizzly bear claws and abalone shells, that would have been worn by a leader, is sure to draw the eye, as is a large buffalo robe with intricate designs that would have been used for bedding.
Men’s clothing decorated with porcupine quill designs and human hair will stir imaginations as will tiny children’s toys and moccasins.
But the central draw of the initial opening collection will likely be a muslin mural painted by White Swan, one of Gen. George Custer’s six Crow scouts, depicting his exploits and experience at the Little Big Horn, Hansen said.
“He was wounded in war and was deaf for the rest of his life,” Hansen said, pointing to a graphic image done in ledger art style of White Swan bleeding from the ear. “He had to use his art to communicate.”
Within the large art piece, which once hung in Dyck’s home away from curious eyes, are various vignettes of the Battle of Little Big Horn, Hansen said.
“There is great interest in this piece. Dyck didn’t invite people to look at it and he had many inquiries,” she added. “So for many interested in the Battle of Little Big Horn, this is their first chance to see it.”
While a small preview with a dozen objects was placed on exhibit in 2008, Saturday marks the first time most of the collection is available for public viewing. A photo collection and computer interactive display will accompany the exhibition.
Throughout the art and crafts on display, one can see a reaction to American influence in the transition from traditional materials such as porcupine quill to materials obtained through trade such as glass beads.
“The artifacts come from several different tribes,” Hansen says. “And because many were made prior to the late-19th century reservation period, they fill in many gaps in our collection and provide continuity in showing the historical transitions of Plains Indian people.”
A patron’s preview for Center members of the Paul Dyck Plains Indian Buffalo Culture Gallery will be 5-7 p.m. Friday.
(Heidi Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.)