Did you know that the Nebraska State Historical Society owns a scalp shirt that belonged to the famous Lakota leader Crazy Horse? Well, we don’t… but for many years we thought we did.
History isn’t just about collecting old stories and old stuff. It’s also about asking skeptical questions such as, “How accurate is that version of events?” and, “Is this artifact really what we think it is?”
Gail DeBuse Potter writes about one such discovery in “The Crazy Horse Scalp Shirt” (Nebraska History, Summer 1996).
In 1906, the NSHS acquired a Lakota scalp shirt from D. Charles Bristol, a traveling showman known as “Omaha Charley.” (His story is told in the Winter 2009 issue of Nebraska History). In the 1890s, Bristol traveled the Midwest with his collection of Indian relics. The shirt in question was cataloged as, “Scalp shirt having 291 scalps on it. It was worn by Crazy Horse of Pine Ridge Agency.”
In 1931, Mari Sandoz took a photo of the shirt to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and showed it to an old Lakota man named He Dog. Though He Dog was nearly blind by that time, his relatives described the photo to him. Because of the shirt’s unusual pattern, He Dog said that it was either the one worn by Crazy Horse, or else a close copy of it.
Sandoz probably didn’t know the details of the shirt’s construction, and for many years it was displayed at the NSHS museum without being investigated further.
A 1983 examination cast doubt on the shirt’s connection to Crazy Horse. “First and most important was the machine-sewn seams,” Potter writes. “Second, the shirt had not been made from a complete deer skin, but had been pieced together to ‘imitate’ a complete skin. Finally, the fringe had been added to the shirt.”
Surprisingly, machine-sewing wasn’t an automatic disqualifier. Sewing machines became common in the 1860s. Potter writes,
According to the staff of The Museum of the Fur Trade, “the question of early use of sewing machines by Indians is a difficult one. Such use could have occurred relatively early for the wives of white men along the Missouri or in Indian Territory. . . . Luther Standing Bear wrote in later life about the Sioux at Rosebud Agency receiving sewing machines and furniture about 1885.”
But Crazy Horse received his scalp shirt in 1865, and was killed in 1877, which indicates that this shirt was not his.
Potter reveals another important clue: The shirt was said to have been worn by “Crazy Horse of Pine Ridge Agency”—but that agency wasn’t established until 1878. Crazy Horse couldn’t have lived there. However, after he died, his widow married a Brulé man named Greasing Hand, “who assumed the name of her famous first husband. The couple lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and Greasing Hand may be the ‘Crazy Horse of Pine Ridge Agency,’” though there’s no direct evidence to prove this.
The shirt remains in the collections of the NSHS, but is no longer identified as having belonged to the Crazy Horse.
—David Bristow, Associate Director for Research & Publications