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Calling Back the Spirits

About the Project

This project considers the socio-cultural effects of federal policy toward American Indian peoples through an exploration of the Peabody Prisoner Face Masks Collection, and generations of their descendants. 


In 1875, 72 American Indian captives from the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho, Comanche, and Caddo Nations arrived at Ft. Marion, Florida. Their removal from Oklahoma was done in part to move American Indian captives out of their home territory, but a secondary purpose was to use these captives to fund-raise for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.  For a fee, captives were displayed to the public, as they traveled an indirect path to Florida, where they were imprisoned at Ft. Marion until 1878. This was a critical period of history and federal policy, as the Indian Wars were ending, allotment and reservations were defined, and residential schools and education policies evolved. Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian commissioned the creation of life-masks of the captives to document theories of race, in which he categorized humans on a scale from “primitive” to “civilized.” The life-masks aimed to contribute to this understanding.

Three sets of the Ft. Marion captive life-masks are known to exist today.  One is kept at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the second is housed at the Peabody Museum on the Harvard campus in New Haven, CT, and the third is in a collection in Paris, France.  Commissioned and owned by the Smithsonian, and not created by American Indians people, the masks are not technically subject to the terms of the 1990 Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) which requires the return of Native American cultural items—from human remains to sacred objects—from federally funded agencies, often museums, back into the hands of lineal descendants or tribal authorities. And yet, those who have viewed the masks report that “when you meet the faces of life-masks you are uncannily in the presence of that person.” (Steinberg 2017) 


The Project includes five primary components:


  • A team has been formed to work with the Smithsonian Institute and Harvard. The purpose of the team is to develop a protocol for returning the masks to the tribes following the “Ethical Returns” guidelines established by the Smithsonian Institute. This is being developed with descendants representing the five nations.


  • A book will be created focusing on the story of capturing the captives and their travel from Indian Territory to Fort Marion, Florida. While captive there, the captives were forced to have life masks made of their faces. This procedure was done in conjunction with the Smithsonian Museum.


The captives were required to pay for their incarceration, and those who drew, created ledger art, a genre that continues today. The art was sold to local people in St. Augustine, FL, and visitors to the Fort. Money collected beyond what they paid for their food was sent home to the captives’ families. Approximately 26 of the captives created ledger art, and those who did not participate created other forms of art as well as bows and arrows. Contributors to the book include the project lead, Dr. Dolores BigFoot, who will provide writings and the photo collection collected by her late husband, John Sipes Jr., a Chief of the Southern Cheyenne Tribe, and their Historian, and Dr. Ruben Mendoza, Archeologist, Educator and Photographer who will bring the story together through photos.


  • The project’s sculptor, Lew Aytes, will sculpt fifteen life-sized bronze busts from the life-mask collection, representing each of the five Nations, clothed in traditional clothing.The busts are sculpted with eyes opened and facial characteristics enhanced, bringing the captives to life. In addition, 5 busts will be created of living descendants, bringing the story into contemporary time. Approval to replicate the masks and create the busts has been received from the captive’s descendants.


  • The traveling exhibition of sculpted busts and mask replicas, ledger artand photographic images will be available for tribal and public viewing in museums that have significant collections of Native American art and artifacts, and each of the five nation museums. A permanent exhibit will be housed in a national museum and will be available through links to an e-Museum.

    • 15 Life-size bronze busts

    • 30 +/- Artifacts connected to the 5 tribes (beadwork pottery, moccasins, shield, weapons and ceremonial artifacts)

    • 64 +/- Images of the captive’s masks (framed, high-resolution publication-quality)

    • 30 +/- stereo images of the captives while at Fort Marion (loans from museums and private collections)

    • 20 +/- Interactive descendant interview videos (free standing iPad kiosks)

    • 40 +/- Story boards, telling the story of:

      • Wars leading up to the captures

      • Indian Territory forts

      • Travel route from Indian Territory to Fort Marion

      • Relationships between the five tribes

      • Artwork and “trinkets” created by the captives

      • Activities while incarcerated in Fort Marion

        1. (Assimilation) Classes

        2. Relationships with locals

      • Those who stayed in the east and went to Hampton Industrial School and Carlisle Indian Industrial School

      • Those who returned home


  • The documentary film project that will bring together the story of the captives captured and taken from Indian Country to Fort Marion, the ancestor’s oral histories, the creation of the sculptures and the exhibit, and the bringing together of ledger art collections from around the world. If complete by the time the exhibit is ready, it may be shown as an added feature.


The Fort Marion captives were flesh and blood realities of a period of American history that is beyond repugnant.  The “Calling Back the Spirits” project hopes to create opportunities to acknowledge that history, as well as the lifelong and intergenerational costs and consequences for American Indian peoples.


Without acknowledgement, there can be no move toward healing. This project hopes to encourage both that acknowledgement and future healing.


Project Contributors include  -

Tribes, Artists and Descendants from Southern Cheyenne, Southern Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and Caddo Nations.

Advisory Team includes representatives from the following institutions:

*Smithsonian Institution, *Milwaukee Public Museum, *National Museum of the American Indian, *Peabody Museum, Harvard University, *Plains Indian Ledger Art Digital Publishing Project, *Humanities and Digital Research University of Central Florida, *National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, *Utah Valley University, *Department of Art and Art History University of New Mexico, * University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, *California State University Monterey Bay, *School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Researchers, Collections and Literary providers:

*Clifford Ah-in-nist Sipes, Coordinator of Training & Technical Assistance for the University of Oklahoma E-TEAM at the College of Continuing Education, *Norene Starr, Special Projects Manager Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, *George Curtis Levi, Cheyenne, Southern Arapaho and Oglala Lakota, Artist, *Heather Levi, Southern Cheyenne/Kiowa, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Artist *Max Bear, Director Historic Preservation Office Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, *Dee Cordry, Author, Forensic computer examiner, Digital Evidence Examinations LLC; Retired special agent, OSBI, *Joyce Szabo, Historian, University of New Mexico, retired, *Daniel Guggisberg, Independent Historian, *Brent Learned, Cheyenne and Arapaho, Artist

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