Museum Minute: A Vest Tells the Story of Its Owner

May 17, 2018

When a museum receives a mass donation of artifacts, it’s up to the museum staff to document every single object. And this is what happened when the Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West received the Paul Dyke Buffalo Cultural Collection

The Paul Dyke Culture Collection consists of over 2,000 objects dating from the 1700s to the 1890s. Rebecca West, the curator of the Plains Indian Museum, was stumped by one object: a man’s vest.

The vest is not a typical Plains Indian clothing but rather a product of Euro American influence. One documentation provided with the vest was that it came from the Santee Sioux. Vests were quite common as items worn for special occasions. And this vest was no exception.

But West realized this vest was unusual because there’s more of a story behind it then when you first look at. She was having difficulty characterizing some of the designs that are on the front right shoulder which was also mirrored on the back right shoulder of the vest. They were not symmetrical and seemed to be randomly placed and mirrored on the back.

Three red lines come down from a circular area on the back and front.

“The more I looked at it the more I realized that I thought it symbolized a wound, probably a gunshot wound,” said West.

There is no evidence to West’s theory but unfortunately, many curators and art historians have to theorize what was the actual intention of the original creator. West believes the vest was worn by a veteran or a warrior and it documents the different wounds he survived.