Sacred Dakota peace pipe sells for $40,000 — and buyer gives it back to Minnesota tribe

A sacred pipe given as a peace offering by a Dakota chief to a U.S. soldier has been returned to the tribe by an anonymous donor who paid twice what it was expected to bring at a recent auction.

“We are humbled by and grateful for this honorable act,” said Shelley Buck, Tribal Council president of the Prairie Island Indian Community in Red Wing, Minn. “Pidamayaye [thank you] to the donor for your respect and generosity.”

The pipe was carved of pipestone, also called catlinite, by a Dakota chief named White Dog while he was being held prisoner after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. He gave it as a gift to a Lieutenant King, one of his captors.

The pipe features designs made with lead inlay depicting birds, animals and arrows, including a large thunderbird.

The pipe, which had been owned by a Boston family since the 1880s, was put up for auction last week over the objection of the Prairie Island nation, which regarded it as a sacred object.

The auction went ahead as scheduled on Saturday, with the pipe expected to fetch $15,000 to $20,000, according to the auction catalog. But when the hammer fell on the bidding, the pipe was sold to an anonymous bidder for $39,975.

Shortly after the auction ended, the tribe learned that the winning bidder intended to return the pipe to the tribe.

Possession of cultural artifacts by collectors and museums has become controversial in recent decades, as representatives of native cultures have called for the return of relics often taken by force or without proper payment.

“That pipe, as a sacred item, would fall into the category of cultural patrimony: a significant item that the tribe could be using for spiritual practices today, or be properly caring for that item,” said Jill ­Doerfler, head of the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Arranging for the return of culturally significant items can be a long and complex process, Doerfler added.

“Museums have for the last several decades been returning items slowly,” she said. “This is a very interesting case where somebody obviously saw this coming up for auction. I can’t imagine this happens very often at all.”

War between the Dakota and white settlers raged fiercely for six weeks in the late summer of 1862. More than 600 white soldiers and citizens died, along with about 100 Dakota soldiers and an unknown number of Dakota citizens.

After the Dakota surrendered, they were forced to leave Minnesota. On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men, including White Dog, were hanged in Mankato. It remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

The Prairie Island Tribal Historic Preservation Office, along with tribal spiritual leaders, will receive the pipe and handle it “through ceremony and community,” Buck said.

That would be a fitting fate for the pipe, which the tribe would see as having a life of its own, Doerfler explained.

“In English, objects are generally inanimate,” she said. “But in a lot of native cultures, that pipe has its own being, its own entity, and it has to be cared for.

“So with items like a pipe or a drum, items of cultural significance, the person who is the holder or the keeper of that object has a responsibility to care for it and to utilize it properly.”

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