Colorful beads, regal feathers, bear paws and a jaw bone, brass tacks.
They all help tell the story of Native Americans who lived in the region in the 1800s, but the artifacts they are part of also tell the story of commerce during the fur trading era.
A new exhibit, celebrated Friday during an invitation-only event at the Museum of the Fur Trade, gives visitors a unique glimpse into the past. The pieces in the exhibit are on loan to the museum through October from Bob Vandenberg of Santa Fe, N.M. It’s the first time the museum has ever included an “on-loan” exhibit in its displays, said museum Director Bill Armstrong.
“This is the kind of thing I live for. The objects are so rare and unusual … it’s an honor to have them here,” he said.
Art, history and education play an important role in Vandenberg’s life; he taught K-12 art for three years before the art program at his school was cut. He turned to buying and selling antiques as a way to nurture his love of art and history and said his passion for Southwest Indian artifacts grew to include the Plains Indians of this region after attending an art show in Denver.
To truly understand the importance of the history behind such artifacts as those included in the new exhibit, one must immerse themselves in it, see it, touch it, sniff it, Vandenberg said. As he began buying and selling more Indian artifacts and living with them, they raised more and more questions – who owned it, what was it used for, how was it traded, etc.
“You just kind of get deeper and deeper into it,” he said.
He was familiar with the Museum of the Fur Trade previously, calling the facility “amazing,” and decided to loan several pieces for display because so many tribes intersected with the Europeans in this region. He focused on pieces that represented the greater geographical area and the time period from 1830-1870 when selecting artifacts for the exhibit.
Among the items included in the new exhibit is a quirt that belonged to Hunkpapa Lakota warrior No Two Horns, the son of Red Hail and a cousin to Sitting Bull who took part in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Three different tobacco bags reflect Cheyenne and Sioux heritage, and a knife with a bear jaw handle is also likely a Sioux artifact, though it could possibly have belonged to a Crow or Blackfoot Indian as well. The handle of the knife is made from a bear’s lower jaw, while the blade is typical of those sold by the American Fur Company at posts such as Fort Laramie or the local Bordeaux Trading Post.
A Cheyenne War Shield from the 1870s-1880s offered Plains Indians protection – along with other buckskin armor - from flint-pointed arrows during battle. Such armor disappeared after the introduction of iron-arrow points and firearms, but the shields remained popular due to the symbolic designs they carried representing the help the warrior’s received from the spirit world. The shield featured at the Museum of the Fur Trade features bear paws; bears were thought to be one of the most powerful animal guardians.