The public is invited to take a look at Paul Rathbun’s collection of Native American artifacts on Monday, Feb. 7, at the Jerky Safari store, 1121 Greene Street, during the afternoon and into the evening, until 9 p.m.
Admission is free but donations will be accepted for the Silverton Standard newspaper.
The Standard, “Silverton Public Newspaper,” is owned by the San Juan County Historical Society.
By Mark Esper
“Spiritually, these things are edgy,” says Paul Rathbun, owner of the Jerky Safari store in downtown Silverton.
He’s referring to his astonishing collection of more than 200 Lakota Indian artifacts and dozens of photographs from the early Pine Ridge Reservation period.
The collection includes personal effects of the famed Lakota Chief Red Cloud, including a peace medal presented to him by the United States government, and his personal smoking pipe.
The collection also includes guns used by the Lakota to defend themselves at Wounded Knee during the infamous massacre on Dec. 29, 1890, by the U.S. Army’s Seventh Cavalry.
“This collection was assembled mainly in the first decade of the 20th century — a hundred years ago,” Rathbun said.
And to Rathbun, it is more than just a collection.
“This represents the history of the last four generations of my family,” he said. “That’s what it means to me.”
But Rathbun says that at this point, he is trying to find an appropriate home for the artifacts, “and that probably means a museum back East.”
Rathbun explained how the collection made its way to Silverton. The story goes back to his family’s roots and close ties to the Lakota Sioux at Pine Ridge, S.D.
“My great-grandmother, Nellie Smith, and her sister built a dry goods store at a railroad stop in the late 1870s,” Rathbun said. The town that grew up around the railroad stop is now known as Chadron, Neb., just south of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“I don’t know how to say it. My great-grandmother liked to party,” Rathbun said. “She lived on the reservation. She — her lifestyle — wasn’t accepted in town.”
He said that Nellie Smith was represented as a dance hall girl in a Western biography called “Old Jules,” by Mari Sandoz, a Nebraskan writer who wrote about pioneer life and the Plains Indians.
Rathbun explained that Nellie had an illegitimate son, Raymond.
“Boys without fathers on the reservation needed to be adopted. So he was adopted by an old man we know as Red Cloud,” Rathbun said.
“And my grandfather grew up spending a lot of time — large segments of his life — in Red Cloud’s home, rolling cigarettes for that old man.”
Rathbun’s grandfather became fluent in Lakota.
“Early anthropologists knew him. They all used him as a translator,” Rathbun said.
Rathbun’s grandfather was also witness to the aftermath of the Wounded Knee massacre.
“When he was almost 11 and living in Pine Ridge, the government massacred over 300 people at Wounded Knee,” Rathbun said.
“My great-grandmother and my grandfather were there shortly after, and they gathered guns from the hands of the dead,” Rathbun said. “I have those guns.”
When his grandfather grew up, he was invited to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling Wild West show.
“But he was only 17 and his mother wouldn’t let him go,” Rathbun said.
But during the first decade of the 20th century, Raymond toured the country “with three horses and two pretty girls and they had a horse-diving show, diving horses off towers.”
Rathbun said his grandfather later returned to Chadron, Neb., married an opera singer from Chicago and lived there until 1939, when he died.
“The collection is partly things that he assembled during his life, and partly a number of Red Cloud’s personal belongings, including Red Cloud’s own pipe that he made as a young man.”
Rathbun said Red Cloud’s pipe was given to his grandfather, along with other personal items, when the Lakota chief died in 1909 at age 87.
“Probably the largest number of items in this collection now were brought to the family store in Chadron from the reservation. My grandfather bought everything people brought to him.
“And so that’s where the collection comes from,” Rathbun said.
The collection includes a number of garments made in leather, and quite a number of decorative pieces for dances, and ceremonial costumes.
“A lot of these pieces are beaded — with glass beads — but also a number are decorated with primarily colored porcupine quills,” Rathbun said. “Then there is of course a combination of both.”
Rathbun said a television crew from Toronto will be visiting Silverton next week to produce a 15- or 20-minute segment on the collection to air next year on a show titled “Forgotten History.”
So he’s been busy preparing the collection for display.
“On Monday, Feb. 7, the building will open for the public — meaning the town of Silverton.”
He said it will be the first public display of the whole collection.
He said some 31 pieces were shown at the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1994.
But that was only a small portion of the artifacts.
“Nobody’s ever seen this,” Rathbun said. “We want everyone to come see this.
“This is going to move on to a big museum. We want people in here,” he said.
Rathbun has had to deal with strong emotions as he prepares the vast collection for display.
“By the time I was 4 years old, I was familiar with this collection, the history of the collection,” Rathbun said.
And Rathbun, who hold a Ph.D in theater history from the University of Wisconsin, has for years been involved in Native American theater projects, learning a lot about history along the way.
“As a little boy, I could show you the very spot where Crazy Horse was murdered,” he said.
He said that in 1994 his father, Speed Rathbun, who used to live in Durango, gave the collection to him.
“He always thought he would give the collection to a museum, but he stipulated that if any of his kids got involved with native studies or native issues, they should have the collection.”
Rathbun said he is not a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe, but he feels intimately connected with this collection.
“This is where culture gets tricky. Growing up around Chadron, this collection — and that history of the reservation — are part of who I am from early childhood,” he said. “And so it’s hard to separate.
“To go with the flat out truth, I am from Chadron and I identify myself as that kind of person. People from Pine Ridge call me ‘Homey.’ I talk that way. I think that way.”
Rathbun became a founding member of the Native Writers Circle of America, which started in 1992 at the Returning the Gift Conference in Norman, Okla.
“Native peoples spent centuries being told what to say and how to say it,” he said.
“I was intrigued by the work of Native America playwrights; given that historically staged plays and movies had saturated our culture with crude stereotypes, why do talented Native writers choose to work in that medium? What sort of characters and plots typify work by American Indian playwrights, and how does their work differ from mainstream writers and presentations?” Rathbun said.
But he said American Indians have been writing plays for a long time.
“We started sending these kids to school in 1831,” he said. “They wrote plays. They’ve been writing plays for more than a hundred years, just like any other student who goes to school and has to read Shakespeare.”
Rathbun started publishing the Native Playwrights Newsletter in 1993.
“The newsletter made me a new kind of person, far and away,” he said.
“Largely due to the newsletter and the inter-tribal theatre project, I was keynote speaker at the World Literature Conference at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. in 1998,” he said.
One of his plays, “Turnaround,” has been produced in New York.
“But I’m really known for my academic writing,” he said.
Rathbun said he is glad to give Silvertonians an opportunity to view his collection before it is sent off to a museum.
“There are a few show-stoppers here,” he said.
Rathbun said he is sensitive to the cultural significance of the collection, even if it means so much to him personally.
“This is about my life, not somebody else’s that I purchased. There are sacred materials here.”