|In late 2013, I got an out-of-the-blue call from Stella Iron
Cloud, a member of the Oglala Lakota (a.k.a. Oglala Sioux) Tribe of
South Dakota. She asked if she could visit the Denver Museum of Nature
& Science (DMNS), where I am the chair of the anthropology department,
to see a beaded shirt that once belonged to her family.
I have to admit that when she inquired about a visit, a few
small alarm bells went off in my headwe get calls like this
all the time. They can lead to difficult conversations about why
a particular piece isnt on display or is no longer even in
the collections (museums do, in fact, remove objects from their
collections from time to time). In this case, however, things went
The shirt Ms. Iron Cloud and her family wanted to see is known
as the Many Hands shirt. It is made of tanned hide and
has strips of white glass beads running down its front, back, and
both sleeves. The strips are decorated with small hands made of
red and blue glass beads, and each hand has a stylized heart composed
of three diamond shapes at its center. Aesthetically, the shirt
is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the story behind it.
Black Horn created the Many Hands shirt around 1910 to commemorate
the multiple handshakes that her husband, Chief
Daniel Black Horn, had with European dignitaries. AC.11450-c/DMNS
The Many Hands shirt was made around 1910 by Bessie Black Horn,
wife of Chief Daniel Black Horn of the Oglala Lakota. Chief Black
Horn traveled extensively with Buffalo Bills Wild West and
other shows in the first few decades of the 20th century. He went
to Europe several times and, though he spoke no English, met many
members of European royal families and government officers, with
whom he had to shake hands. When he returned home, he told Bessie
of these many handshakes; she then made the shirt to
honor this peculiar greeting style.
Chief Black Horn was a grown man at the time, so he could not
serve as a model for the hands. He and Bessie were taking care of
their young grandson when she designed the shirt, so they used the
young boys hands as the template. That young boy was Stella
Iron Clouds father!
Black Horn, second from the left in his Many Hands shirt,
was made famous through the Buffalo Bills Wild West
show. Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave
Most of our families dont have such significant ties to
the historical record, of course. Still, take a moment to consider
this: If you could select a single family heirloom to be preserved
in a museum in perpetuity, what would it be? Why? Who would make
the decision? You? Your nuclear family? Your entire extended family?
As difficult as it is to answer these questions, even given
time to ponder their implications, many Native American families
have not had the privilege of such active decision making. These
difficult decisions have been made for them by people in positions
of powerand often under duress. Or they have been made under
duplicitous circumstances and even as a result of outright theft.
As my colleague (and SAPIENS editor-in-chief) Chip Colwell
relates in his new book Plundered
Skulls and Stolen Spirits, millions of family heirlooms, sacred
and funerary objects, and objects of cultural patrimony (think the
Liberty Bell, which belongs to all of us, yet belongs to none of
us), have ended up in museums over the last 150 years. It is a troubling
and difficult situationone that many museum curators wrestle
with on a regular basis. In some cases, we have to admit that artifacts
in our collections pose great ethical challenges, and sometimes
those items are ultimately returned to their rightful owners. In
the most unfortunate cases, objects in museums lead to conflict,
with all interested parties digging in their heels and refusing
to compromise. Once in a while, though, when the stars align, an
object brings people together to share an experience of beauty,
wonder, and appreciation. The Many Hands shirt is one such object.
So how did this beautiful piece end up in the DMNS
collections? Black Horn sold the shirt to collector Drew Bax in
1940, when the chief was about 60 years old and no longer performing
in traveling shows. Bax, in turn, sold it to collectors Mary and
Frances Crane in the 1950s. The Cranes donated their entire collection
to DMNS in 1968, and the shirt has been here ever since. It was
on display in the Crane Hall of Native American Indian Cultures
until about a decade ago, when it was removed in order to preserve
On November 29, 2013, Ms. Iron Cloud and about
a dozen members of her extended family came to Denver to see the
Many Hands shirt in person. I had already placed it in my office
in preparation for their visit. When she walked into the room and
first laid eyes on it, she audibly gasped, put her hand to her mouth,
and caught herself as her knees buckled slightly. Luckily her nephew
was at her side to make sure she didnt completely collapse.
As tears welled up in her eyes, she said, I havent seen
it since I was about 5 years old. Ive been looking for it
for years. Im just so excited to finally find it!
Iron Cloud and the author, Steve Nash, inspect the Many Hands
shirt on November 29, 2013. Rick Wicker/DMNS
As a curator, it is my responsibility to ensure that priceless
objects in the museums collections are properly cared for.
Its also my responsibility to make sure that the information
we have about those collections is as detailed and accurate as possible.
Stella and I enjoyed talking about the piece and her familys
history, and I was thrilled to learn that they were happy that it
was in our museum and in such great condition.
After our visit, in a moment of solitude, I sat down. I took
a deep breath and pondered what had just happened.
On one hand, it was just another day at the office. On the other,
it was a day Ill never forget. I was caught off guard by Stellas
emotional response to what had been, to me and until that day, just
another museum object. On reflection, I realized that we all have
emotional attachments to inanimate objects. Indeed, thats
one of the things that makes us human. We name our cars, we wear
our lucky hats on game day, and we decorate ourselves with symbols
and meaningful accessories. And that doesnt even approach
our deep relationships to family heirlooms, much less sacred and
Finally, I realized that its a lot more enjoyable being
a curator when relationships are built and maintained than when
they are destroyed by conflict or tension. In the case of the Many
Hands shirt, I am thrilled and honored to have helped a wonderful,
interesting family reconnect with one of its cherished heirlooms.
This work first appeared on SAPIENS
under a CC
BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original
STEPHEN E. NASH
Stephen E. Nash is an archaeologist and a historian of science who
studies a wide range of subjects, including dendrochronology (tree-ring
dating), the history of museums, the archaeology of west-central
New Mexico, and Russian gem-carving sculptures by Vasily Konovalenko.
He has published numerous books, most recently Stories
in Stone: The Enchanted Gem-Carving Sculptures of Vasily Konovalenko
Anthropologists Arrival: A Memoir. He lives in Denver
with his wife and three boys. Follow him on Twitter @nash_dr.