By the time Ruth & I got to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s 4th and 5th museums, we were beginning to understand why it encourages visitors to spend 2 days there instead of trying to see it all in a few hours on one day. The Plains Indian and Draper Natural History museums were both fine, but they made me think that many patrons might find this entire facility controversial. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, after all, celebrates subjects that a lot of people now argue about–western art, guns, a canny showman who got rich from popular Wild West Shows, artifacts created by Native Americans on reservations, and a venue that celebrates the art of taxidermy. It will be interesting and culturally instructive to follow the fate of this huge tourist attraction devoted to these subjects.
The Plains Indian Museum’s stated mission is to “follow the lives of Plains Indian people from the mid-19th century through today”, and it doesn’t ignore the pain they have suffered. It’s well organized so that visitors quickly realize it is focusing on the lives of only tribes like the Apache, Pawnee, and Sioux who live in the Great Plains Region. It mentions that there are 670 tribes in all and offers a map showing the 30 or so major tribes who live on the plains. The artifacts shown, children’s toys, deer hides, beads, elk teeth, and the 2 Buffalo Horn Bonnets below, are great to look at, well displayed, and carefully explained. I appreciated seeing, for example, the Shoshone painted hide above by a native artist named Codsiogo that shows a buffalo hunt and ceremonial Sun Dance. The Plains Indian Museum clearly states that the return of the buffalo to tribal lands after near extinction led to a cultural rebirth for Plains people. That sounds a bit like wishful thinking. A couple of the displays are dramatically large and on more than one level. The Plains Indian Museum doesn’t avoid the relocation that led to the Trail of Tears while making it known that Canada also removed people from their homelands and put them in defined areas called reserves. This practice lead to disease, warfare, child removal to boarding schools, and desperation. Ruth found it important to sit down and write Sitting Bull’s words, “They promised how we are going to live peacefully on the land we still own and how they were going to show us the new way of living…but all that was realized out of the agreements with the Great Father was, we are dying off.”
The Draper Natural History Museum is mostly on the Lower Level and fairly typical. A lot of it is a tribute to the taxidermy skills of men like Jack Putnam. Putnam traveled the world collecting specimens. His specialty seems to have been wolves. His wife donated them to this venue. Most of the animals on display in the Draper live in the Greater Yellowstone Region but are unlikely to be naturally seen by most visitors.