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Museum acquires knife reportedly used by Crazy Horse
This knife and its sheath, reportedly owned by the Lakota leader Crazy Horse, are being prepared for display at the Indian Museum of North America at Crazy Horse Memorial.

The Indian Museum of North America at Crazy Horse Memorial has acquired a knife that reportedly belonged to Lakota leader Crazy Horse, although a Lakota historian has raised questions about its authenticity.

The knife and its sheath are being prepared for display, possibly as early as Mother's Day, May 11, according to museum director Anne Ziolkowski.

With $20,000 from an anonymous benefactor, Ziolkowski bought the knife and beaded sheath in telephone bidding from an auction gallery in Texas on April 19. The knife and sheath arrived at Crazy Horse Memorial last Friday.

Ziolkowski said the acquisition is as important as the museum's Manhattan trade beads from 1626, acquired in 1998 through donors.

Auction coordinators rated the knife, because of its extensive records, including a 38-page provenance, or facts supporting its authenticity, as the top item at a sale featuring 1,500 historic Western pieces, according to a news release from Crazy Horse Memorial. The gallery said its expert authenticated the knife and sheath, confirming that its design and materials were from the 1850s to 1900s.

However, doubts about the item's authenticity were raised last week by Donovin Sprague, a Native American historian and descendant of the Crazy Horse family.

Sprague, a university instructor at Black Hills State University and Crazy Horse Memorial, said he has read the 38-page provenance, which he described as well written. "They spent a lot of time researching, but I've found a whole lot of areas of question," Sprague said.

He said the red, white and blue flag designs in the sheath's beadwork were more prevalent in the early 1900s, not the 1870s. Crazy Horse, "Tasunka Witko," was born in the 1840s and died in 1877 after being stabbed at Fort Robinson, Neb.

Sprague believes Crazy Horse may have surrendered his knife while at Fort Robinson, but, according to historians there, weapons were tossed into a big pile, and it would have been difficult to know which item belonged to which person.

"It would have been difficult to identify one as his," said Sprague, who said he is a descendant of the Crazy Horse family from Chief Hump, also known as High Back Bone.

Ziolkowski said Sprague had not seen the knife and sheath yet.

But Ziolkowski, who is in her 25th year as museum director, believes the knife and sheath likely were owned by the famed Lakota warrior and leader, who played a key role in the defeat of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

"As historic things go, I have never seen anything that's this well documented, Ziolkowski said.

She said she believed the knife had belonged to Crazy Horse. "I believe that it is or that it very possibly could be. Everybody has to decide for themselves."

Ziolkowski said the documents indicate the knife and sheath could have been made by Crazy Horse's sister. "Crazy Horse's sister is given credit for making the knife for her brother," she said.

She said the yellow background color of the sheath is also an indication that it belonged to Crazy Horse. Typically, sheath backgrounds are white, but Crazy Horse was known to have used yellow and blue.

"The knife itself is pretty nondescript," Ziolkowski said. "I could probably go in our collection and find a couple more just like it or that would be close." But she said the knives in the museum's collection are also from the same era in which Crazy Horse lived.

According to the provenance, cavalry horseshoer William E. O'Neill bought the knife and sheath from a first lieutenant stationed at Fort Meade in the northern Black Hills in the 1800s. Troops of the 7th Cavalry there patrolled the western portion of Dakota Territory and surrounding area. The lieutenant claimed the relic belonged to Crazy Horse, based on stories from his Lakota family.

O'Neill sold the knife and other items to collector Edward Barbour of Maine in 1894. The collection, including O'Neill's letter to Barbour about the knife, sold at auction in the mid-1960s. The knife's buyers sold it and other parts of their collection at the April 19 Texas auction.

Ziolkowski said the museum at Crazy Horse also acquired O'Neill's letter about the knife.

She said the entire 38-page document about the knife and sheath would be displayed along with them.

Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, the museum's parent organization, rarely buys items, according to the news release. Foundation president and chief executive officer Ruth Ziolkowski said a supporter's estate recently gave unrestricted funds to help the museum.

The Crazy Horse Memorial Welcome Center also has an exhibit about the life of Tasunka Witko.

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8417 or steve.miller@rapidcityjournal.com

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