Sheridan County is surrounded by Native American culture.
The Crow call the Bighorn Mountains “Basawaxaawúua,” or “our mountains.” One of the most famous battles, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, was fought only one hour’s drive away. To the east of Sheridan, a half dozen tribes revere the Black Hills and Devils Tower as one of the most spiritual areas for their people.
So in the heart of Native American culture, it makes sense that a Sheridan museum would have one of the most impressive collections of Indian artifacts in the American West.
Only 12 miles south of Sheridan, The Brinton Museum holds an array of historical art and artifacts from various Native American tribes. The John and Adrienne Mars Gallery of American Indian Art on the second floor of the museum holds an exhibit called “To Honor The Plains Nations.” The exhibit has more than 80 pieces of art and authentic relics from American indigenous people.
“This is really a strong collection of American Indian art,” Kenneth Schuster, the director and chief curator of The Brinton, said. “It’s really one of the best collections you can find anywhere.”
Schuster reveres the exhibit as one of the more important rooms in the building. In some ways, the exhibit is treated more as a church than a room in a museum.
The exhibit was designed under the influence of Father Peter J. Powell, a well-known Native American scholar and an adopted member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Under his vision, the exhibit highlights the spiritual aspects of the Plains Indians’ art and the work they put into their crafts.
“We treat the things in here with the idea they were created from a spiritual nature,” Schuster said. “We want to not only display the beauty, but the spiritual aspects, and why the American Indians put so much craftsmanship into them.”
While the number of artifacts is enough to keep history enthusiasts busy, perhaps it’s the variety that makes the exhibit most impressive. Included are robes, war bonnets, painted war shirts, dresses, jewelry, horse gear, blanket strips and much more. All of them are 100 percent authentic.
Original pieces are not cheap. Often, the museum has to shell out six-figures to obtain a Native American artifact or piece of clothing. Many of those items were purchased by Forrest E. Mars Jr., the late business man who donated millions of dollars to build the new museum facility.
“Without him, we wouldn’t have many of the artifacts we have today,” Schuster said.
Native American art and artifacts have long been a cornerstone of The Brinton Museum. Bradford Brinton himself collected American Indian artifacts from all regions of the country; from the Plains Indians and the tribes of the southwest to the indigenous people from the Pacific Northwest.
Recently, The Brinton Museum received several artifacts from the Goelet and Edith Gallatin Collection of American Indian Art and Artifacts. The collection, which was on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago for the past 40 years, was gifted to the museum by the Foundation for the Preservation of American Indian Art and Culture, of which Powell is the president.
“It’s a testament to Father Powell’s dedication to the Plains Indians people,” Schuster said.
Sam Weis, a museum enthusiast from Islamorada, Florida, has seen many museums containing Native American artifacts but said that The Brinton’s collection may take the cake.
“The way that it’s curated … the way it’s lit and displayed — you certainly don’t feel like you’ve stepped too far outside,” Weis said. “It just feels alive (in the exhibit).”