Items for sale in the Guns of History auction, Las Vegas (photo Rachel Harris-Huffman/Hyperallergic)

History buff, gun enthusiast, and antiquities collector Wendell Grangaard of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, auctioned off hundreds of antique firearms and artifacts related to the Battle of the Little Bighorn (known as Battle of Greasy Grass to Lakota peoples) and American Indian Wars in an auction in Las Vegas.

Among the 479 items listed in the Guns of History Auction, held January 19–21 by Lovig Auctions, were several antique Lakota items, including a square drum, a bone dancing stick, a set of beaded buffalo horns, a ceremonial pipe, and a variety of weapons and objects, including a rattle attributed to Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull who lead his people in resistance against United States government policies and incursions into the Black Hills of what is now known as South Dakota. The catalogue also contains weapons alleged to have belonged to Oglala leaders Crazy Horse, who led a counterattack against Lt. Colonel George Custer’s 7th Cavalry, and Red Cloud, who defeated the US during Red Cloud’s War.

The inclusion of Native American artifacts in the auction has caused controversy. On January 19, Frank Star Comes Out, recently elected president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, sent a letter to Guns of History, Inc. requesting the withdrawal from auction of 111 items; the missive was also posted on his Facebook page. The Tribe, he said, identified these items as potentially “possessing sufficient cultural significance to warrant protection under federal law.”

Some of the listed objects have already been sold. In a YouTube video, Brian Lovig of Lovig Auctions interviewed Grangaard about his collection, which has been amassed over the past 60 years. During the interview, the two men dismiss the need for repatriation, stating that “the laws have all been straightened out.” Presumably, the two are referring to antiquities laws — which have only grown more robust in recent years — that would allow for the seizure and repatriation of illegally obtained artifacts; however, if the items in Grangaard’s collection were purchased legally, as he and the auction house claim, laws like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) would not apply.

Items for sale in the Guns of History auction, Las Vegas (photo Rachel Harris-Huffman/Hyperallergic)

“We have all kinds of things that Wendell has preserved and enhanced with regards to Native American culture and Native American items,” Lovig told Hyperallergic. He noted that Grangaard has written histories for each item based on his own research, including conversations with Lakota families.

Hyperallergic spoke with Government Representative of the Sioux Nation of Indians Manape LaMere (Hochunk/Isanti/Ihanktowan), who questions Grangaard’s intentions when building his collection and documenting object histories.

“There’s two things going on here. There’s contributors who sell things to you, and then we have this gentleman’s history that he’s collected. I wonder if these family members had the impression that [these were things] he was going to auction off, or if [he was gathering] historical evidence. It could be both,” LaMere said. LaMere has posted information about some of the items and their relevance on Facebook.

Regarding the controversy surrounding the sale of Native American artifacts, Lovig acknowledges he’s aware of the arguments. “There’s been suggestions that Wendell should give all of his items to Indians [sic], of course for no money, and Wendell, in fact, did pay money for them,” he said. “I don’t see an issue with that … To me it’s the free market.”

LaMere suggests there could be solutions to the issues of Indigenous cultural patrimony being sold by private collectors. “There’s an opportunity to build relationships with people who are open-hearted enough to hear [about the importance of repatriation].”

He encourages anyone who is interested in returning cultural property to the Oglala Sioux Tribe to contact him. He also suggests that laws like NAGPRA could be amended to place stricter controls on the sale and trade of Indigenous artifacts, even between private owners. “I believe our tribal sovereignty gives us the right to step in,” he said.

Brian Lovig of Lovig Auctions at the auction table (photo Rachel Harris-Huffman/Hyperallergic)
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Rachel Harris-Huffman

Rachel Harris-Huffman is an interdisciplinary artist and writer based in Albuquerque. New Mexico. She holds an MLitt in Art Writing from the Glasgow School of Art and a BFA in Painting & Drawing from...