X is for items no longer on display

Helbing Collection A-Z is a continuing feature of our blog. Each week, I will highlight an item or items from our Helbing Collection of Native American Arts and Crafts.

This post is a little different – there are no photos. In the course of our research, and in our conversations with visiting scholars, we discovered that we had a couple of sacred objects in the collection. The most notable was an Eagle bone whistle, reportedly used at a Shoshone-Arapaho Sun Dance at Fort Washakie, Wyoming. We contacted the Wind River Shoshone History Center and were told to take it out of the exhibit and not to display photos of it either. Once we received the request, we did indeed remove it and followed instructions including that no female should handle it. It is currently packed away in secure storage and can be brought out for men who are initiated into a Sundance culture.

Cleora’s story follows: “This whistle, decorated with four gray feathers in the center and one white feather at one end, is made from a special bone of an eagle. It is 7 1/2 inches long. This was used at the Shoshone-Arapaho Sun Dance at Fort Washakie, Wyoming. I was so interested in the weird music they made with these whistles as they danced from sunrise to sunset that Miss Brown, the Home Economics teacher, asked the chief if he would give me his whistle, which he did. As I’ve explained before, this was the last Sun Dance where the Indians were allowed to mutilate their bodies and the red you see on the gray feathers are blood stains.”

According to Reed Tidzump of the Wind River Shoshone History Center,  “the Sundance occurs during the summer, usually after the middle part of June, three days of fasting, praying and dancing occur and during this time the individual participating in this ceremony must blow on the whistle the whole time that he dances.  The Sundance here on the Shoshone Reservation is limited to men only; there are men who sit at the drum and sing the appropriate songs and women are the back-up singers to the men, it is fair to that this ceremony is strictly male.

Its uncommon for them to be given to a female, but during that time things were hard for our people and from my own personal viewpoint I believe that there was probably some monetary compensation given for these items, I’ve been to some museums where similar items used in these ceremonies were bought by non-indians and then donated to museums, generally nowadays these would never be consider for sale, but times were different then and survival was the main thing.

I believe that Ms. Helbing was forming her own opinion and probably heard several stories from different people regarding the Sundance, here among the Shoshones “self-mutilation” was not done by our people, but rather by the Sioux Indians for it is part of their ceremony to pierce, but I don’t know to much about their ways only from what I’ve heard.  Each tribe that has a Sundance has their own way of performing their own ceremonies, this a misconception that many non-indians have about us, they figure since were all of the same race that we have the same language, ceremonies, etc, but our tribes are different just the same as a Frenchman is different from a German and so on, we are not the same people.”

For images of a Wind River Sundance Ceremony, CLICK HERE.



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