Sunday, November 15, 2009


Paul Dyck’s collection of Indian artifacts is the star in the crown of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Paul Dyck himself was extraordinary and his wife, Star, even more so. She was the sort of glamorous tomboy whom we associate with old-time major film stars, competent, protective and very beautiful. I loved her. I have no memory at all of Bob flirting with her, which would have been hopeless since she was definitively Paul’s woman. Nor did I flirt with Paul who treated me like a captive deserving compassion, which made me smile.

But Bob was intensely jealous of Paul for other reasons. The two of them were like two roosters when they were in the same room, violence just under the surface, though Paul made it clear that his attitude to Bob was indulgent contempt. His collection was bigger, better, older (which is good in terms of collections but not other things) and he knew more about artifacts anyway. He was three years younger. Bob had his khaki and Paul had his tailored denim cowboy outfits and high dogger-heeled boots. Paul knew his way around a ranch. But his connections to the Blackfeet were through his father and his childhood in Alberta, so he came to the ceremonies Bob sponsored with quiet respect. Bob’s collection was worth a little less than one million dollars (less if you subtract the collection of Mountie uniforms and the gun collection). Dyck’s collection was worth $22.5 million.

Paul was a classy guy with obvious European ancestors, namely THE Van Dyck. (Yes, he wore a Van Dyck beard.) His approach was aristocratic, knowing and quality based. Likewise, his art was based on a classical and difficult technique of glazing specially mixed paints (egg-based matrix) and his subject matter, though recognizably Native American, was abstract, phantasmagorical, elitist.

He used the dimension of secrecy. Bob loved a good secret and would reveal choice pieces to only privileged persons, often good customers. He didn’t exhibit his collection but it was around, part of the household. Paul’s materials were sequestered, maybe not even in this country. Some had been collected by his ancestors and went back to the 1600’s. Even now they are sheltered down in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, which has received a grant of $350,000 to “help” with the cost of identifying, listing, sorting, and other dimensions of curating. (Bob’s NA materials are in Edmonton and I don’t know their status or handling.)

The custom of maintaining a secret cabinet of treasures, collections and gifts, goes back to the Popes and other major figures of wealth -- goes back and back and back. One could argue that Native American Bundles are not unlike those cabinets of precious and sometimes religious objects. It is a marker of value to require security and thus being locked up so secrecy is a compliment to Native American artifacts. On the other hand, secrecy is closely related to sacred mysteries and amps up the psychological power of the objects. This is partly why the taboo exists on not opening Bundles and not describing the contents. But lack of transparency means many opportunities for skulduggery -- switching, removing, misrepresenting, and so on. In fact, fake holiness is a major problem when dealing with Native American materials and practices. People so badly WANT them to be mysterious and effective. If they are protected, hidden, they become more magnetic.

Paul Dyck
was far from capitalizing on the magic aspect of artifacts, but he was strongly alert to repatriation and it’s problems, both practical and political. Though it might seem intuitive to just give everything back to the original owners, in fact there are major injustices. Families have split into different factions -- which one gets the object? Some things are so old that the tribes to which they belonged no longer exist. Tribes have no museums nor any curators prepared to give fragile object the care they need nor any budget to pay for experts, materials, atmosphere control, proper storage furniture. security. If the Buffalo Bill Historical Center needs $350,000 as only part of the money to curate, what must the tribes need? Most basically, returned objects -- since the dynamics that forced their sale in the first place have not changed -- simply get sold again.

Paul and an associate published a very elegant and scholarly magazine about cultural materials, which always included a section about recent NAGPRA returns. ( Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act. ) Read it carefully. Consider many angles. This is very delicate and new territory with many unforeseen consequences. No culture has tried to return artifacts until recently.
Dyck was an artist ( and an author: “Brulé : the Sioux People of the Rosebud” as well as a world-class collector, but in every category also he was a perfectionist and a purist. His contribution to NA artifacts was the demand for authenticity, accurate identification, true NA sources, and fine workmanship. He was not against the collection, sale and trading of Native American artifacts, but rather against unethical, shoddy and deceptive practices in that context.

He was also a shrewd politician. To deal with laws is to deal with politics, to deal with laws about Native American matters is to enter political territory that is full of quicksand and trapdoors. Everywhere are quibbles -- is this skeleton identifiable as Native American? Is this rattle really part of a Sacred Ceremony? It all comes to value, which comes to definition, which cannot always be pinned down for sure. Those on one end of the value gradient push for high and those on the other end push for low.

When Paul saw, like Bob Scriver, that there was neither the money or heart for a free-standing Paul Dyck museum, he (UNlike Bob Scriver) began to work with the Buffalo Bill Historical Center to make sure they knew what they were going to acquire and helped to design the new part of the Center meant to receive the objects. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. But who was he joining? Big money, Republican or conservative forces in the state of Wyoming (Dick Cheney was on the BBHS board), and a female Native American curator from Oklahoma. The consequences will play out over centuries.


Centerfire said...

Undoubtedly you were a friend of Paul and Star and you have been most kind in your blog; however, for historical accuracy (i.e. the last paragraph of the Nov. post), please note that there were actually sufficient funds to build a museum on the property Paul owned at the Little Bighorn Battlefield (more than once) but for reasons too complex to explain, he choose not to do so. Further, Paul did not approach the Buffalo Bill Historical Center nor begin to work with them so they would know what they were going to acquire. To a great extent, the BBHC did not know exactly what they were acquiring before the final transaction was made. True to form and as uncompromising as ever, Paul never adopted a "if you can't beat them join them" philosophy. It is true that many years ago, he provided some thoughts regarding the Plains Indian Museum design at the Buffalo Bill, but again for many reasons, his Collection was never placed there. I am accutely aware of these details, because I was intimately involved as a Dyck Foundation Board member. Thanks for noting the correction.

prairie mary said...

Thank you for the correction. The estates of artists are a controversial and often cloaked subject and need to be treated with much more transparency. I'm sorry to have gotten it wrong.

Prairie Mary
Mary Scriver