years ago, lost to drugs and alcohol, Karen Little Thunder moved
back to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where, she
said, she saved her own life by reconnecting to her Lakota heritage,
particularly the legacy of her great-great grandfather. He was Little
Thunder, a Lakota leader and a contemporary of Crazy Horse, whose
life spanned several decades central to the history of the tribe
from the battles it fought across the Great Plains to its
resettlement on reservations.
"He was a great leader who always had the greasiest tepee door,
because he was generous and was always feeding people," she said.
Little Thunder, described by one trader as "six feet or more
in height, handsome, with a commanding bearing and superior intelligence,"
led a band of Sicangu Lakota that lived along the Platte River,
which runs east to west across what is now central Nebraska. He
rose to prominence in 1854, after United States Army soldiers shot
his predecessor Conquering Bear over a dispute involving a "ten-dollar
cow that had wandered into a Lakota encampment from a Mormon wagon
train," said Peter Gibbs, a retired curator of the Native American
art collection of the British Museum, who has done research on the
Lakota and has taught at a university on the reservation.
In a photograph of a man the family believes to be Little Thunder,
taken around 1860, he poses in an elaborate rawhide shirt. On the
sleeves are locks of hair given to him by his people or perhaps
cut from scalps taken in battle, as well as eagle feathers dyed
red and white to symbolize the civil and war responsibilities of
Last fall, a history professor on the reservation contacted
the family after noticing, in an auction catalog, a shirt that looked
like the one in the photo.
The Skinner auction house in Boston had listed it as a "Sioux
Beaded and Quilled Hide Shirt" and estimated it would fetch between
$150,000 and $300,000 at its Nov. 9 sale. But minutes before the
bidding began, Skinner withdrew the item from the auction in response
to pressure from lawyers and tribal officials representing the Little
Thunder family. Karen Little Thunder is the main family member pressing
"This is not just a pretty object that you go and sell," said
Mr. Gibbs, who said the shirt has historical significance because
of its former owner.
Cultural property claims can be complex: The competing interests
of good-faith collectors and plundered civilizations have to be
adjudicated among complications like the passage of time, the disappearance
of records and the evolution of law.
Douglas Diehl, director of the American Indian and ethnographic
art department at the auction house, would not discuss the matter
when reached by phone, but released a statement saying that Skinner
"is committed to the highest standards of research and due diligence"
and is "particularly sensitive to Native American artifacts."
The collector who consigned the item for sale, Charles E. Derby,
said that he had good title to the shirt. He bought it, according
to his lawyer, William H. Fry, from another collector in the early
1980s and has a bill of sale. Mr. Fry said his client could track
the shirt, which has been shown in museums, back to 1955, when it
was displayed, and later sold, by a bookstore in Cambridge, Mass.
A lawyer for the Little Thunder family, Robert P. Gough, said
that a collector would need a lengthier provenance for the shirt
to claim good title.
Mr. Gough is relying on a series of laws that restricted the
buying and selling of land and personal property between Indians
and white people. Some of these laws, which protected Indians from
desperately selling their property for unfair prices, were in force
until 1953, only two years before the shirt was purchased from the
bookstore. A transfer, even a sale, of the shirt to a white person
that took place before 1953 would have been prohibited by law, Mr.
Gough contends, leaving only a two-year window for the shirt to
have left the tribe. Mr. Gough says that no one in the family can
remember such a transaction then.
But Mr. Fry, the seller's lawyer, took issue with that reading
of the Indian commerce laws. He said that the laws promoted an outdated
and "paternalistic view" of Native Americans and that the last of
them were repealed in 1953, at the request of Native Americans.
"The law made it illegal for them to buy, sell and possess
personal property it treated them as wards of the state who
were incapable of making their own decisions," he said.
there are no known photographs of Little Thunder, Mr. Fry questioned
how the family could even be sure the man in the photo was an ancestor.
Mr. Gibbs said he had been given a digital copy of the photo four
or five years ago as a likely picture of Little Thunder and worked
with the family to confirm the identification. For one thing, he compared
the picture with known photographs of Little Thunder's son: "I overlaid
father and son, and the likeness was amazing," he said in a telephone
interview. In addition, he said, details of the photo indicate it
was taken around 1860, and ornamentation on the shirt suggests that
it was one of a handful made for Lakota leaders of that time.
"There's no doubt it's the old man's shirt," Mr. Gibbs said.
If the family cannot negotiate the return of the shirt, Mr.
Gough said the family would ask for help from the United States
Department of the Interior, which has jurisdiction over cultural
property issues for Native Americans.
As tensions escalated on the Great Plains in the mid-19th century,
Little Thunder played a significant role in ensuing Indian wars.
He was a Lakota leader in 1855 when the United States Army marched
into his village at the Blue Water Creek, near Ash Hollow, in southwest
Nebraska. The Army was on a retaliatory mission: The year before,
29 soldiers had died in a battle with the Lakota.
Historians say that Little Thunder tried to surrender but was
rebuffed. According to Army records, 86 Lakota were killed that
day, and 70 women and children taken prisoner. Little Thunder was
As the battle raged, a teenager named Crazy Horse rode into
camp, and the carnage he witnessed made an indelible impression.
Twenty years later, he helped lead the Lakota and their allies to
wipe out the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn in 1876.
By then, Little Thunder was already living on the Rosebud reservation,
where he died three years later. In his lifetime, he had seen the
Great Sioux Nation which once stretched from the Bighorn
Mountains in Montana to eastern Wisconsin, and from the border of
Canada to the Platte River in Nebraska shrink to three reservations.
For the Little Thunder family, that history still lives. Karen
Little Thunder, 48, said the shirt represents greatness that is
within reach only a few generations back. "It gives us,"
she said, "something to hold on to."