GREAT FALLS — A collection of paintings, photos and sketches depicting some of the last pre-reservation Native Americans, including survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, could sell for more this weekend than any of the other individual works during Western Art Week.
The Wrangler Gallery, located at 316 Central Ave., is seeking a buyer for the 122-piece David Humphreys Miller collection. Gallery owner Brad Hamlett says it is worth $3.8 million, according to an independent appraiser who looked at it recently.
It’s on display at the gallery throughout Western Art Week. The collection is owned by a family friend of the Millers who’s a representative with the Solomon Family Trust.
“This collection belongs in a museum where the public can access it and study it,” Hamlett said. “It’s also a very interactive exhibit. Native people come in to see it, and they may see members of their family who never had a photo taken of them, but they will remember them and start talking about their memories.”
Included in the collection are more than 50 sketches of the survivors from the Battle of the Little Big Horn and exclusive photos from the various Hollywood westerns Miller worked on with the Sioux Natives he brought to appear in the films. He would then collect the money given to the Natives and make sure they were given their fair shares once they returned to the reservation.
Some of the films Miller worked on as adviser include “Cheyenne Autumn” and “How the West was Won.” He worked on 25 films in total, bringing authentic Natives to play Indians in the films.
Miller, of Ohio, was 16 when he came to Montana and the Dakotas in 1935 to interview the surviving warriors who had wiped out the U.S. Army forces led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer in 1876.
He formed a lifelong relationship with the people. Over the course of his life, Miller learned 14 Indian languages, including sign languages, and was adopted into 16 different Indian families.
He also wrote two books about the battles titled “Custer’s Fall: The Indian Side of the Story” and “Ghost Dance.” Both books are on display in the exhibit.
In his artist’s statement, Miller wrote that he began his journey with the goal of finding out what happened from those who survived the battles. He said it was a long task that took many years to complete.
“I recall feeling a considerable sense of urgency when I began my quest. Will Durant has written that ‘no man in a hurry is quite civilized,'” he writes. “I was anything but civilized in my haste to find as many old Indian veterans of Little Big Horn as I could to straighten out history. The Indians almost certainly had never even heard of Durant, yet I found there was no way of hurrying them. The project of seeking them out, persuading them to pose for their portraits and interviewing them about their individual roles in the Custer Fight took a number of years —1935 through 1941 and 1946 through 1955 when the last survivor died.”
In 1972, Miller’s works won the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Beyond the artwork, many of the old black-and-white photos in the collection are one-of-a-kind images.
Hamlett said they’ve recently had the curator from the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman at the gallery looking at the collection. He said the curator told him that just the photographs and negatives were worth $600,000.
Hamlett said the collection also includes several priceless artifacts, including the headdress of John Sitting Bull, the Northern Apache ghost dancer and stepson to the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull.
There also is a rare Ghost Dance Shield, given to Miller as a wedding gift July 4, 1954, by Sam Helper, who survived the Ghost Dance massacre, also known as the Wounded Knee massacre, in December 1890.
All of the artifacts were given to Miller as gifts and cannot be sold, Hamlett said, but will be given to a museum that might look to show the collection.
Some of the more interesting pieces featured in the 95 sketches and 25 oil paintings include:
. Black Elk, subject of the book “Black Elk Speaks,” the Sioux warrior who adopted Miller as his son;
. Chewing Black Bones, the Blackfeet warrior for whom the campground near St. Mary is named;
. Juniper Old Person, father of Earl Old Person, chief of the Blackfeet Nation; and Joseph White Bull, who told Miller that he killed Custer in hand-to-hand combat. The body was identified after the battle by an Indian woman who had been captured by Custer and bore him a son, White Bull told Miller.
Many of the portraits painted by Miller between 1935 and 1941 are of the 70 surviving Indian warriors from the Battle of the Little Bighorn quoted in “Custer’s Fall.”
A portion of the collection was shown at the University of Wyoming in 2012.
Barbara Koostra, director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana, said the museum would be interested in acquiring the exhibit but does not have the financial resources to buy it.
“A few years ago our museum made inquiries about this collection in terms of a potential gift. This is due to the fact we have no acquisition funding,” she said. “At that time, there was not a desire to gift the collection and it appears their desire to sell continues. We’d be extremely interested in such a collection coming to our public collection but are not in a financial position to acquire it in terms of a purchase.”
Similarly, the Montana Historical Society has viewed the exhibit but does not have the resources to purchase it, either.
“It’s appears to be a wonderful and important collection but not something that is on our priority list at this time,” Historical Society Director Bruce Whittenberg said.
The owner of the collection, who wished not to be identified, said Miller never sold any of his artwork. She said he saw it as a chance to tell the story of the Native people who survived these historically important battles by hearing it directly from them.
“He had a wonderful life and did what he wanted to do,” she said.
Hamlett said the gallery owner inherited the collection after the Millers died and wishes to sell it to help share Miller’s memory, and the historical importance of his paintings, with the world.
“She was one of (the Millers’) best friends and she had gone to the reservation with them from time to time and she knew how important their personal relationships with the native people were,” Hamlett said. “In fact, Miller actually was buried on the Sioux reservation.”
The Millers especially became close friends with Dewey Beard and his family. Beard was the last living survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the Battle of Wounded Knee. He lost his first wife, his parents and children in the battles.
The collection’s owner said Miller was accepted as a member of the family among people in the tribes he visited such as Beard and others.
Some other interesting aspects of Miller’s life include his work as host of the 1950s TV show “Cavalcade of Books,” in which he interviewed authors and speakers. It was on his show that he interviewed Richard Nixon. He also did portraits of famous Hollywood icons such as Charlton Heston and Milburn Stone.
Miller’s wife, Jan, worked as a researcher on the program “This Is Your Life.” Before meeting Miller, she was a reporter for a daily newspaper in New Orleans. She first met Miller when she interviewed him for a story. They met again a few years later and married shortly thereafter.
More than anything, however, Hamlett said Miller’s curiosity in the Northern Plains culture was by far the most enduring aspect of his life.
“I think he had a sincere interest in history and he wanted to find out what happened, and the only ones who could tell him were the Indians,” Hamlett said. “There’s no other collections like this one, historically or artistically, especially because he used the oral history of these people that would be gone if he hadn’t come along and wrote it down and showed these people through his art.”
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