by Matt Reed, Curator of American Indian & Military History Collections
In 1920, the Oklahoma Historical Society received as a gift from Will Clark, a buffalo hide tipi decorated with pictographs. For the next 80 years, this tipi was the focal point for museum patrons. The tipi underwent several conservation treatments to repair damage or for cleaning.
After transfer to the new Oklahoma History Center in 2005, all sides of the tipi were easily visible for the first time in thirty years. An immediate curiosity arose among any of the staff that ventured into the vicinity of the lodge. Across the entire surface of the tipi are one hundred twenty-five pictographs depicting the social and ceremonial life of the former inhabitants. Who were these people, who lived in this tipi, how did it end up in the Oklahoma History Center?
In 1864, the 50th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry mustered into Federal service for the Civil War in Madison, Wisconsin. Instead of the hot battlefields of the south though, the Army sent the 50th to Fort Rice in the Dakota Territory.
The 50th Wisconsin apparently had an amicable relationship with the neighboring Yankton Sioux. At various times during their service at Fort Rice, officers and soldiers accompanied the Yankton in hunting buffalo. Even the commander of the regiment, Colonel John G. Clark, participated in the friendly hunts. It was on one such hunt that he was injured. Records do not document the type of accident.
As the Civil War ended and the Federal government mustered the 50th out of service, Colonel Clark learned that a Yankton family had painted an artistic rendering of his hunting accident on their tipi. Colonel Clark went to the family of Mato Nonpa, or Two Grizzly Bears, and traded for the tipi to take home as a souvenir.
For the next few decades the tipi was stored in either the basement or attic of the Clark home. Eventually the Clark family traveled to the new Oklahoma Territory. It was in Oklahoma City that John G. Clark became one of three territorial Supreme Court justices. His son, Will Clark, also served in the court system settling land claim disputes. In 1920, Will Clark donated the tipi to the Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City.
The interpretation of the tipi usually evolved around its appearance: a bison hide tipi covered with pictographs. This changed with the construction of the new Oklahoma History Center.
When staff erected the tipi in its new storage facility, all of the pictographs were fully accessible for the first time in decades. In fact, under the better controlled environment of the History Center, pigments that had faded began to come to the surface. A few pictographs transformed from being nearly invisible to vibrant.
Viewers could now see the depiction of Colonel Clark’s accident while hunting buffalo. This drawing existed on the back of the lodge near the lift pole. Ironically, the previous exhibition had completely obstructed the whole reason the Yankton tipi was in Oklahoma.
Using the scant information left by the donor, the museum knew the name of the man who originally owned the tipi to be Mato Nonpa or Two Grizzly Bears.
The National Anthropological Archives online photographic database provided the opportunity to find an image of Mato Nonpa. Within a few minutes of searching for anyone that was Yankton and named Two Grizzly Bears, the database delivered two pair of photographs.
The first set was of a young man in his twenties, wearing a suit and tie photographed around 1900. This did not meet the period that the tipi remained among the Yankton.
The other individual was an older man wearing traditional style clothing and hairstyle. Famous photographer Alexander Gardener took the photo in 1872. This was 7 years after Col. Clark lived near the Yankton and obtained the tipi. This Mato Nonpa definitely fit the criteria for being the original owner of the lodge.
Pictographic and ledger art is unique in that people familiar to the artist are depicted the way they appear in real life. In other words, carrying identifying shields, headdresses, clothing, war honors, and hairstyles unique to that person. You might look at these as hand drawn photographs.
Keeping this in mind, there was a slim chance that an image of Mato Nonpa existed on the tipi. With a brief search of the drawings, staff turned up an image of Two Grizzly Bears. In fact, there are two images. Though obviously drawn by two individuals, the pictographs show a mounted warrior with nearly the same clothing, hairstyle, and headdress.
The Oklahoma History Center facility has enabled new interpretation, conservation, and research into a rare artifact from American Indian history.