One of the earliest examples of a Cheyenne war shirt, fringed with locks of human hair, could attract up to $500,000 for the Southern Oregon Historical Society during an auction Monday in San Francisco.
The society's move to sell the shirt has drawn criticism from tribal officials.
"It's sad what's happening," said Steve Vance, tribal historic preservation officer with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. "If I could stop it, I would."
An analysis by the historical society indicates the shirt could be the earliest example of its kind from the Cheyenne tribe, dating from the 1830s to 1840s.
The auction will be conducted by British-based Bonhams and will include other American Indian artifacts from SOHS, such as a Cheyenne tobacco bag, a Sioux pipe and a bow case, quiver and arrows. Included in the collection are an Anglo-American mourning dress and an Anglo-American beaded purse.
The estimated value of the collection, which the historical society hopes will sell as one unit, is from $300,000 to $500,000.
SOHS and other museums throughout the world undertake a lengthy process before selling or donating items that aren't appropriate to their mission but take up space and resources to manage.
SOHS rarely deaccessioned artifacts from its collection until two years ago, when financial pressures increased and the society began weeding out items that don't have any connection with the history of Southern Oregon. Since May 2009, artifact sales have totaled $155,176.
The Cheyenne shirt, donated to the historical society by Grants Pass resident Benjamin Bones in 1957, was obtained by Bones' ancestor, Marquis Fargo Cutting, at Fort McPherson, Neb., close to modern-day North Platte.
How the artifacts fell into Cutting's hands still is shrouded in mystery. But tantalizing shreds of information show the transaction involved a famous American Indian leader, Chief Spotted Tail of the Sicangu (burned thighs) Lakota, and a U.S. senator named James Rood Doolittle, Cutting's relative.
Vance said the shirt appears to have some ceremonial significance, and family members related to Chief Spotted Tail still live near his tribe.
Made of mountain-sheep hide and strips of buffalo, the shirt is embroidered with porcupine quills. Locks of human hair hang from the sleeves. A panel of red wool frames the neck opening.
Rosettes on the front and back suggest a corral used in the hunting of large game and also recall tepees set up in a circular formation, according to the historical society.
A semi-circular pattern with points on it inside a circle on the shirt could indicate the seven bands that make up the Sioux, said Vance, who based his observations on a photo of the shirt.
A light blue area could represent waterways and lakes that connect the tribes, he said.
Beads, rather than the quills used in this shirt, were found in Indian garments in later years, he said.
Vance, who learned of the shirt only recently, said other institutions such as the Smithsonian have obtained American Indian artifacts over the years, and tribal officials have sought their return without success.
The selling of the shirt is just the latest example of Indian artifacts not being returned to the appropriate tribes, he said.
"It's basically a slap in the face, but we've seen worse," Vance said.
He cited an ongoing legal dispute with Skull and Bones, a secretive society at Yale University, over a skull and other artifacts belonging to the famous Apache warrior Geronimo.
Dianne Desrosiers, tribal historic preservation officer for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota, said she has forwarded information about the shirt to other tribal officials to determine its ceremonial significance.
Based on her observations from a photo, Desrosiers said it appears to be a very old example of a Cheyenne shirt.
"It's exquisite, I will say that," she said.
Historical society documents recommend that DNA and forensic testing, as well as more historical research, be conducted on the shirt and other items.
Pat Harper, SOHS interim director, said a report was commissioned in August to make sure that the sale of the shirt wouldn't violate the Native American Grave Repatriation Act.
"Items such as shirts are not covered by cultural patrimony," she said. "We wanted to be absolutely certain that we weren't defying the law."
She said attempts to sell the artifacts to a nonprofit have met without success over the past two years.
Harper said the historical society couldn't provide the proper preservation techniques for the shirt, which also doesn't fit with the mission of preserving artifacts related to Oregon, and particularly Southern Oregon.
She said part of the historical society's mission is to generate sufficient money to preserve the artifacts that relate to this region.
"If money were no object, it would be a different story," she said. "We wish we could have given it away. But that wouldn't be responsible to our mission."
The hope is that whoever buys the collection can also afford to preserve the artifacts properly and research their provenance.
Harper said she didn't know whether holes and other signs of degradation on the shirt occurred before or after the historical society obtained it.
She did say the locks of hair are not related to scalping.
If a new collector obtained the artifacts, Harper said, more work could be done to determine the history of the shirt.
Tina Reuwsaat, associate curator of collections for the historical society, said an attempt was made to contact Cheyenne and Sioux tribal members through American Indians at Southern Oregon University.
"We never got any responses," she said.
Reuwsaat said the attempts to contact the Cheyenne and Sioux were more related to discovering additional information about the shirt's provenance rather than to sell it.
Reuwsaat said she helped put together all the research conducted on the shirt and other artifacts from Bones' collection.
"All we can say for certain is that Ben Bones said in a letter that his grandfather collected the shirt from Spotted Tail," she said.
The historical society is in the process of trying to repatriate other items in its collection that are related to American Indian tribes. Reuwsaat said burned beads, copper and even a couple of teeth are among many items believed to have been taken out of local American Indian graves that the historical society is attempting to give back.
Ben Truwe, a local historian, said it's unfortunate the historical society decided to sell the war shirt and other artifacts, but it was a decision not taken likely.
"It's not entering into this decision precipitously," he said. "They've been agonizing over it for two years."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email email@example.com.