In August 1992, shortly after joining the staff of History Colorado, I met Loretta Afraid Of Bear and her husband, Tom Cook. Loretta is a Lakota American Indian from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She came to the museum to conduct research on an ancestor, George Sword (c. 1847-1910). Sword was a warrior, holy man, tribal leader, and informant for Dr. James R. Walker, a physician at Pine Ridge who documented Lakota traditions during his tenure there from 1896-1914. Sword was one of a handful of Oglala Lakota elders who had known pre-reservation life when the Lakota dominated the Plains and roamed them freely, but after spending nearly a full generation in confinement, grew concerned that their traditional ways would be forgotten.
Sword persuaded the elders that future generations of the Oglalas should know all their ancestors believed and practiced, further adding in his own words, "and the the Gods of the Oglalas would be more pleased if the holy men told of them so that they might be kept in remembrance and that all the world might know of them" (James R. Walker, Lakota Belief and Ritual, p. 47, xiii-xiv). The elders agreed and befriended Walker, encouraging him to record Lakota culture. Their collaboration produced a rich collection of drawings, stories, and descriptions of customs, beliefs, and rituals, among them the powerful Sun Dance central to Lakota spirituality.
Walker provided much of the contents of this collection, recording his observations and study, but the compelling relevance of the collection lies in the fact that Lakota were the principal participants in the effort, supplying Walker with information through translated interviews or documents written in Lakota, many at the hand of George Sword. Additionally, in about 1905, Sword and others worked with Walker to record a series of ceremonial songs on wax cylinders using a cylinder phonograph (the music has since been transferred to digital media).
Dr. Walker retired in 1914 and eventually moved to Colorado, where he died in Wheat Ridge in 1926. In 1913, future History Colorado curator, Maurice Frink, met Walker while on a summer trip to Pine Ridge and was impressed with his project to record Lakota traditions. Almost fifty years later, when Frink was serving as a curator, he learned the Walker collection was in the possession of the late physician’s granddaughter, Emeline Hughes, and worked with her to obtain its donation (James R. Walker, MSS 653).
Loretta Afraid Of Bear, direct descendant of Sword's brother Afraid Of Bear, was born and raised on the same land allotment where Sword lived and wrote his narratives during the last decade of his life. She says she is "eternally grateful," for her ancestor’s wisdom and gift, saying, “His narratives give us foundational knowledge, understandings, and practices that we do well to honor and keep today.”
In the course of working with Loretta and Tom we became friends and years later, family, when she adopted me as her brother. The relationship opened the door to another world I’d never known, that of the Lakota. The collection is more than history; it is a heartbeat of a culture.
Keith Schrum, Curator of Archives
Top: Materials from James R. Walker Collection, MSS #653 (History Colorado)
Bottom: George Sword 90.148.98 (Walker Photograph Collection, Scan #10038800)
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Stephen H. Hart Library and Research Center
History Colorado Center
Denver, CO 80203