The Sioux who lost his shirt

Glasgow is under pressure to return a holy relic to its American Indian owners. Cole Moreton investigates
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Four days after Christmas, in 1890, hundreds of men, women and children belonging to the Lakota nation of Sioux Indians camped at a creek called Wounded Knee in South Dakota. The Lakota were starving - their crops had failed, their cattle were sick, the buffalo had gone - and they were ready to end the long war against the settlers who had stolen their land. The holy men gave them hope. Dance, and you will become invincible, they said. Wear the shirt that invokes the spirits of your ancestors, and no bullet will enter your body. Dance, and the plains will fill with buffalo again, dead warriors will rise alive, and the white man will sink into the earth.

They were wrong. Wrapped in blankets against the snow, and travelling under a white flag, the refugees were on their way to surrender when the Seventh Cavalry arrived. The soldiers searched the camp and confiscated guns, knives and axes from the exhausted braves, who could hardly resist.

Then a shot rang out. Nobody quite knows what happened. Some say a deaf Indian did not understand the order to give up his gun, others that a medicine man threw dust in the air - a prayer for protection interpreted by the cavalry as a signal to attack. Whatever triggered the massacre, by the time the soldiers stopped firing there were 150 men, women and children dead, and many more wounded. With their bare hands, despite the volleys, Lakota men managed to kill 25 soldiers.

A blizzard swallowed the field, and the wounded were left to freeze. Three days later the troops returned, with photographers, journalists and relic hunters. They threw 350 bodies into a trench, after stripping them for souvenirs that could be sold to collectors.

Years later, man called Black Elk said: "I did not know then how much was ended." He was a follower of the messianic Ghost Dance religion, which had spread through the Sioux nation like a prairie fire just before Wounded Knee. It offered hope to defeated people. Only the Lakotas believed that wearing the ceremonial shirt associated with the Ghost Dance made you invulnerable in battle.

"When I look back now from the high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered," said Black Elk. "A people's dream died there." The Indian Wars were declared over soon after, but the Sioux struggle to regain the lost land and identity has continued.

"Our cultures have been stolen but we are still here as a people. We are fighting the same battles that have been fought for 300 years." Those words come from Mario Gonzalez, an attorney who is part Lakota and part Mexican. The remarkable thing is that the battle is continuing at the Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. Tucked away in an upstairs room, at the far end of this echoing building full of stuffed animals and other Victoriana, is an audiovisual display on Wounded Knee. Its centrepiece is a creased and tattered calico garment, decorated with tassels and feathers, punctured by bullet holes and stained with blood. This is a Ghost Dance shirt, stripped from a dead warrior on the battlefield. It has been behind glass at the museum for more than a century.

This week Mr Gonzalez will fly to Scotland to win it back. His battle will be fought with courteous and elegant words at a public hearing on Friday, and the outcome decided at a meeting of the city council a week later. Glasgow may give up the shirt, which will reunite the Lakota with an object sacred to them, but that will put the fear of God into museums all over Britain.

Why? Just imagine what would happen if every group that lost an object of spiritual or cultural significance during the days of Empire demanded it back. The shelves of our great institutions would empty; not to mention those smaller museums built around the booty acquired by individual travellers.

There are few subjects more likely to make the museum world clam up than repatriation, says Heather Falconer of the magazine Museums Journal. Repatriation, the return of objects to the country or culture of origin is a major issue in Australia, Canada and the United States, where an increased awareness of the rights and grievances of aboriginal people has led to new national policies and laws.

Now those who campaign for the Maoris, Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans have begun to look overseas for artefacts they claim were stolen. Strangely, few museums here will admit to having been approached, although groups including the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre made appeals all over Britain. Most museums deal with requests in strict confidence. Those few who have agreed to repatriate objects have done so in secret, for fear of creating a precedent or provoking a flood of new requests. Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums Association, says: "It is one of the great taboos to dispose of anything at all in your collection. What is so special about the Glasgow case is that they have chosen to make their decisions in public, in an open and accountable way."

When it became clear the Lakotas would not go away, three councillors were asked to form a repatriation working group and the public was invited to write in. Of 104 letters received from all over the world, only eight were against returning the shirt.

This is the fair and democratic way, says Iain Sinclair, a history teacher on the Isle of Lewis. He made contact with Lakota people while exploring Native American history with his pupils, and is now the official Scottish representative of the Wounded Knee Survivors Association, formed by Lakota descendants of the massacre. "There are similarities between what happened to them and the Highland clearances, in terms of people being victimised and losing their land," says Mr Sinclair.

Unfortunately (for this reading of history) many of the families cleared from the Highlands went to America, where they or their descendants played a full and bloody part in the slaughter of Indians. There were Scots in the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee. At a time when Scotland is seeking to reassert its cultural identity, through devolution and the repatriation of objects such the Stone of Scone, the Lakota request is an awkward reminder that Scots have been conquerors and imperialists as well as victims.

The Kelvingrove Museum has received two other requests. One is from the MP Bernie Grant, on behalf of the Oba people of Benin, seeking the return of bronze altar figures taken by the British Army in 1897. At a local level, Central Wishaw Community Council in Lanarkshire wants to be rebury the bones of a man believed to be a member of the 17th century Presbyterian movement of Covenanters.

Mark O'Neill, the head of curatorial services for Glasgow Museums, believes each request must be dealt with separately. "If there was only one ghost shirt in the world and they needed it to tell their history, the case would be unanswerable. There are a few. The Smithsonian Institute in America agreed to give them back seven. On the other hand, it is the only one in Britain with a Wounded Knee provenance, and the only one in Europe. It offers a real connection with a mythic past familiar to us all."

At the hearing Mr O'Neill will put the case for keeping the shirt. "If you listen to the story emotionally, you just say, 'Give it back.' The only argument for not doing so is that it is artificial and naive to do good now out of vicarious guilt for something that happened ages ago. It's not realistic and it doesn't acknowledge the complexities of life.

"How far back do you want to go in applying ethical judgements to history? All the Italian paintings in the great galleries were ripped out of churches. The Lakota had conquered the Black Hills only 50 years before they were conquered by the Europeans. There is a justifiable case for saying that part of the object's history was its arrival in Glasgow, and that the people of this city have some rights to it."

So how did the shirt get from the frozen burial ground at Wounded Knee to a display cabinet in Kelvingrove Park? The answer has been uncovered by Sam Maddra, a postgraduate student at Glasgow University, who says it was brought to the city by a member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

George Crager was a chancer. Born in New York, he lived among the Lakota from the age of 13 and learned their language. He was at Wounded Knee soon after the massacre, as a correspondent for the New York World and a collector of souvenirs. His knowledge of the Lakota gave him access to genuine artefacts and earned him a place on the tour of Europe by William F Cody as Buffalo Bill in 1891. His show included 23 Ghost Dancers who had been released from prison to perform. These strong warriors with striking faces and colourful outfits were a big hit in Glasgow. Their interpreter, George Crager, entertained the press with dramatic tales of the Wild West.

Just before the tour moved on, he sold 14 Lakota artefacts to the Kelvingrove Museum for pounds 40, and donated a further 14. They included four items allegedly from Wounded Knee: a war necklace made of hide and deer hoof; a pair of buckskin moccasins; a cloth and buckskin baby cradle decorated with porcupine quills and brass bells; and the shirt, with a crescent moon painted on the back and a single golden eagle feather on the chest. Crager told the museum it had been blessed by Short Bull, a high priest who had personally visited Wovoka, the Paiute Indian prophet believed to be the Messiah.

No-one can be sure if the artefacts were really taken from the battlefield, although the Lakota themselves are convinced. They did not find out that the shirt was in Glasgow until a full century later, when it was seen by an American lawyer on holiday.

Their first request for repatriation was turned down, partly because it was feared the shirt would be buried in order to lay the spirit of its dead owner to rest. Then in April 1995 a delegation of Lakotas arrived in Glasgow to negotiate. "They brought an aura of seriousness, which was very impressive," says Mark O'Neill. "They performed a ceremony of blessing or cleansing, they burned grass, and said prayers over the objects. It was very moving."

Now a heritage centre in South Dakota has agreed to display the shirt until the Lakota have their own museum, and the conditions look right for its return. It is hard to argue against someone who claims ownership on the basis of a living spirituality, says Mark O'Neill, but he will try. "I'm persevering, although at least half of me agrees with them. If you believe that museums are an expression or our Western spirituality, there has to be a case made for their preservation. Our own values - of discovery, communication, education, of promoting growth in society by facing the hard things - all have to be defended as valid. We can't just say, 'We're bad people, we'll give it back.' We are trying to find a different answer - one that respects them, and us."