In late February of 1896, a delegation of four diplomats and their interpreter arrived in Washington and checked into the Hotel La Fetra at 11th and G streets NW. The group then set out to do what diplomats everywhere do: meet with foreign government officials.

"Big Sioux Here," was the headline above the story in the Evening Star, which listed the visitors: Little Wound, a high-ranking chief of the Oglala Sioux; Capt. Thunder Bar, chief of police at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota; George Fire Thunder, an English-speaking catechist in the Episcopal Church; and Kicking Bear, a Lakota Sioux who had fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Native Americans at Pine Ridge had raised $800 to fund the trip, the aim of which was to press the United States on such issues as trade on the reservation. Such trips were not uncommon. For years, native leaders had visited Washington to lobby Congress and the White House.

At the Interior Department, an official assured the men that "no one connected with the department desired for the Sioux anything less than the fullest opportunity to improve the condition of themselves and their families."

There was disagreement about what that "fullest opportunity" entailed. The U.S. government wanted natives to "walk the white man's road." Indian children were taken from their parents and forbidden to speak their native language. The Ghost Dance, a religious ritual that Kicking Bear was a leader of, was banned.

One element of the lobbying trip had an impact that Washingtonians can still see today. In March 1896, the 49-year-old Kicking Bear was invited to pose for a photographer and artist from the Smithsonian's National Museum. The photographer,William Dinwiddie, took detailed pictures. Then hollow quills were placed in Kicking Bear's nostrils, his face was covered in grease and plaster of Paris was applied to create a life mask.

"My suspicion would be he thought they were being deferential toward him, regarding him as a Lakota leader, and it was for this reason they wanted to make the cast," said Cécile R. Ganteaume, associate curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. "I'm quite sure a lot was lost in translation."

The true purpose of the life mask and photographs were apparent in a story printed in the Star on May 30, 1896, two months after the Sioux delegation had returned to Pine Ridge. It began: "Mindful of the fact that the picturesque red man, adorned with his primitive paint and feathers and armed with his characteristic weapons of wood and stone, has — like the bison — become an almost extinct species, to be regarded by another generation as a curiosity, Uncle Sam has devised a novel method for preserving the forms of such uncivilized types as remain for the view of posterity."

No one expected the Indian way of life would last much longer. These photos and casts would have to suffice.

But, Ganteaume said, the life masks of Kicking Bear and other natives were not intended to illustrate culture but to support racial theories.

"They were documenting racial groupings because they very much believed that people's level of culture was related to their race," she said.

Cultural achievement — and perceived lack of cultural achievement — was written in the very faces of different ethnic groups.

Said Ganteaume: "Kicking Bear isn't really there to represent himself. He's there to represent his type."

Kicking Bear died in 1904. His life mask would prove eternal. In 1914, construction began on the Dumbarton Bridge, which takes Q Street NW over Rock Creek. Sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor's bison statues guard each end.

As the bridge's architect, Glenn Brown, explained in 1915: "Having the buffalo as the principal decoration, we naturally determined to give the carving in other portions of the structure an American character, and for this purpose made our studies from examples and books on Yucatan and Central America. The corbels were started on Indian heads — we were fortunate enough to secure a life mask of Kicking Bear from the National Museum, which gave us a good type of head as a basis for the conventionalized modeling."

There are 56 carved likenesses of Kicking Bear gazing down on Rock Creek Parkway traffic.

It's impossible to say what Kicking Bear — whose Sioux name was Mató Wanahtáka — would have thought of his face on the bridge. An honor? An appropriation?

"It's pretty unique and pretty weird how these first people who were enemy combatants of the United States become heroic signifiers of the country," said Paul Chaat Smith, who with Ganteaume co-curated the "Americans" exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian. "The curious thing that happens is how Indians become frozen in time, even as they're contemporary actors in the world."

Kicking Bear traveled to Washington to represent his people. Part of him never left.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit