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Personal items of Sicangu Lakota chief returned after 150 years

The headdress, once worn by Chief Spotted Tail, on display during the formal return to South Dakota
C.J. Keene
The headdress, once worn by Chief Spotted Tail, on display during the formal return to South Dakota

At a Pierre middle school, the 1870s came to life in the form of a cache of items that once belonged to Chief Spotted Tail – or Sinte Gleska.

The collection includes a full set of clothing, arrows, a sage bundle, and a full-sized sacred eagle feather headdress once worn by Spotted Tail himself.

The return took place at the Georgia Morse Middle School, and along with performances from the schools Tate Topa – or Four Winds Drum Group – appearances were also made by state tribal relations secretary David Flute and education secretary Joe Graves.

Spotted Tail was a Sicangu Lakota chief and political leader who served as a liaison between his tribe and the United States government on numerous occasions. His legacy includes working in DC to represent the interests of native peoples and as the namesake of the Sinte Gleska Tribal University

In the 1870s, Spotted Tail befriended Indian agent Cicero Newell. Indian agents were government employees who worked to connect the US government with tribal entities, including the Lakota. As a result of this relationship, Spotted Tail gifted Newell the cache of items with the instructions the items were to be inherited by Newell’s firstborn son.

That relationship was also documented, among other things, in one of Newell’s books – Life Among the Sioux Indians.

Now, around 150 years later these items are returning to the state Historical Society, and descendants of Newell and Spotted Tail made the trip to Pierre to formally sign the deed of gift.

James Newell is a fifth-generation grandson of Cicero Newell. He lives in Washington state.

“My son, who was in his early 40s, said – 'you know dad, isn’t it time to take it out of the closet and give it back?' I want to say that was probably 2015, and it took a lot of time researching to find out where it was going and who to take it to," Newell said. "It never really belonged to us was his response.”

Now that the items are back in South Dakota, Newell described a sense of relief.

“It’s been in a closet over the years, and it’s time to get it out and let people see it," Newell said. "For as many years as it’s been in a closet, the fabric, the skins, the buckskins are just as soft as a baby’s skin. Just incredibly soft and nice. It’s time to let people see it.”

On the other end of the exchange is John Spotted Tail, who said it’s overwhelming to see these pieces in living color.

“Myself, I didn’t know this was out there," the Spotted Tail descendent said. "I was very skeptical when I got the phone call, and after thinking about it, I knew it was real and we went and picked it up. We looked at this and we took it into ceremony, and everything was good with it.”

The items will be housed at the state Historical Society on permanent display. Spotted Tail said he’s happy with this home.

“We’re just happy to have it here, I know some of the relatives wanted us to hang onto it – but how can you hang onto something like this," Spotted Tail asked. "You need to show people and teach them what happened. There’s a lot of history to it, and there’s a lot of research that needs to be done with it to find out exactly when he had this.”

Spotted Tail even has a theory for the origin of the items.

“I think it might have came from the Blue Water Battle down in Nebraska, he mainly wore it then," Spotted tail said. "He wore this when he was a young warrior – before he became a chief.”

The Battle of Blue Water Creek, or the Battle of Ash Hollow, took place in Garden County in the Nebraska panhandle. Led by Chief Little Thunder, Spotted Tail is believed to have been present for the battle, which took place in 1855. At that time, Spotted Tail would have been 32 years old.

The battle is considered by some to have been a massacre by US forces. Led by the controversial Gen. William Harney, the battle resulted in the death of 86 Lakota people – including women and children – and the capture of an additional 70 as prisoners, also including women and children.

However, 150 years later this exchange was a markedly different tone - a celebration of friendship between peoples in a different era. This friendship was highlighted by a gubernatorial proclamation, read by Historic Society director Benjamin Jones, formalizing this relationship between peoples.

“Whereas Chief Spotted Tail was the leader of the Brule Sioux in the 19th century and a famed warrior, and whereas Maj. Cicero Newell – United States Army – became agent of the Rosebud Indian Agency in 1879 and began a strong friendship with Chief Spotted Tail. Now, Kristi Noem – governor of the state of South Dakota – do hereby declare the week of May 13 as Sinte Gleska-Newell Friendship week in South Dakota,” the proclamation read.

The collection of items will be put on display at the state Historical Society Museum in Pierre

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture