When the four Indian wampum belts were put up for auction at Sotheby Parke Bernet, the Iroquois tribal council of Salamanca, N.Y., had to get a court injunction and match a high bid of $5,000 to retrieve the tribal heirlooms dug up by an amateur archeologist.
Those wampum belts are now on display in the year-old Seneca Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca, along with seven others on loan from the State Museum in Albany, which has the largest wampum belt collection in the world.
Collection problems such as this are being discussed this week at a workshop parley at the Smithsonian Institution for "native American" museums (it's a term that also includes Eskimos, Aleuts, and native Hawaiians).
Like all those wampum belts at the New York State Museum, many choice items of Indian culture already were in collections by the time the first museums for native American Indians were formed in the late '30s and '40s. (They now number between 30 and 120, depending on what is counted as a museum.)
An irony is that some of the best collections are in Europe, pointed out George Abrams, director of the Seneca Iroquois National Museum.
"French Jesuit priests went back items to the French King. The British Museum has many Indian items and so does the Vatican," Abrams said.
Museum directors building up their collections also run into tribal tradition and religious beliefs about sacred objects.
The Sacred Pipe of the Sioux Nation still is in the care of the traditional family and brought out once a year.
"It is unwrapped only in times of great stress," explained Dawn Little Sky, who is director of the Harry V. Johnson American Indian Cultural Center near Eagle Butte, S.D.
The museum (whose unlikely name honors a benefactor) serves four bands of 7,700 Sioux, but, is not extrusted with the Scared Pipe.
Dawn Little Sky, in addition to being director of the Sioux museum, has been seen on "Gunsmoke" and playing cowboys and Indians with Gregory Peck in a western filmed in Israel. She and her hushand, Eddie Little Sky, are professional actors who trained at the Pasadena Playhouse.
"In the old days, we played the Indian roles where you just stood there and said: 'Ugh! Him went that way,'" said Little Sky. "I tortued Matt Dillion in one episode as he was tied to the stake. I thought it was pretty mild."
Both Abrams and Little Sky have found that tribal members do come forward to donate items to their museums once they are assured the heirlooms will be treated with respect and care.
"Another problem for the native American Indian museums is that objects were handed down in tribal families and if anything happened - destroyed by vermin or by fire - the tribal members could make a new one and transfer all power to it. It is like the old story of the man who still maintained he had George Washington's axe, even though the handle had been replaced three times and the head twice," said James Hanson.
Hanson, coordinator of the Smithsonian's native American training program, offers advice on funding and technical expertise to Indian tribes who want to set up museums.
"I've talked to tribal councils that have problems of 70 percent unemployment and alcoholism and who can't see spending money for a museum now to preserve the past," he said.