“It’s your lucky day,” museum manager Stephen Laffey tells me in a broad Aussie drawl as I walk through the front doors of Tatanka in Deadwood, South Dakota. “The chief is here.”
“What chief?” I ask, clueless.
“THE chief,” Steve grins. “The big kahuna. Wait and see.”
Tatanka — The Story of the Bison is a tiny museum in the Black Hills which explains the history of the buffalo (tatanka in the Lakota language) and its pivotal role in America’s Wild West. Featuring an interpretive centre, an outdoor Indian village and an impressive life-sized bronze statue of a buffalo jump, the museum happens to be owned by Hollywood movie star Kevin Costner, who also bought a ranch, a casino and half the town of Deadwood after filming his seminal movie, Dances with Wolves, in the area.
It’s certainly not the sort of place I expect to find an Aussie in charge and it begs the question — how did a custom motorcycle and trike-maker hailing from the Gold Coast end up managing a museum dedicated to a hairy cow-like beast?
“I own a motorcycle shop in town,” Steve explains as he gives me an introductory tour of Tatanka’s interpretive centre. “I’m just managing the museum over summer as a favour. Made a few changes, though — like this!”
Jumping behind the counter of the cafe, he pulls out two bottles of Bundaberg Ginger Beer from the fridge. “Goes down a treat here, sells like wildfire. Dave really loves it too.”
He ushers me to a fireside table where an old man sits, staring into the distance.
“Here you go, Dave — your favourite.” Steve says, sliding the stubby along the shiny table-top and inviting me to take a seat. The white-haired old gentleman smiles, popping the top off the ginger beer with enthusiasm before taking a long and appreciative slurp.
“I’ll leave you two to get acquainted,” Steve says, before leaning over and whispering in my ear. “Once you get him started, he won’t shut up. Best part of my job here — he’s a gem.”
As a means of introduction, Dave hands me his business card. Chief Dave Bald Eagle it reads, while on the left-hand side is a painted depiction of an Indian warrior, dressed in buckskin with a long, feathered head-dress. Lightning cracks in the background and the chief holds a buffalo skull towards a ray of sunshine.
“Is that you,” I ask, astounded. It suddenly dawns on me that this is the chief Steve had mentioned. And I’m beginning to suspect he’s a Very Important Man.
I’m not wrong. At 94 years of age, Chief Dave — Beautiful Bald Eagle to his family — is the leader of the Minikoju band of the Cheyenne River Lakota people. He is also the elected First Chief of the United Indigenous Nations, a collective of 143 indigenous governments that meets on an annual basis to promote the advancement of indigenous peoples and to foster unity.
Basically, I’m in the presence of royalty. David Beautiful Bald Eagle is the grandson of White Bull, who fought alongside his uncle Sitting Bull at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Many accounts attribute the slaying of Custer to White Bull, a claim that Chief Dave’s grandfather vehemently refuted.
“I asked him ‘Grandpa, did you kill Custer as they say?’” Dave recalls. “He said ‘Whoever told you that is a liar. Every one of those soldiers dressed alike, no one knows which one was Custer and no one knows who killed Custer. And in our nation, you are not supposed to tell lies. It’s sacred when you smoke the pipe.’”
Born in 1919, Dave possesses the wisdom of a man who has lived a thousand lifetimes; for that is how it often seems to him. “I remember when there were wagon trains,” he says, speaking so softly I have to lean across the table to catch his words. A man who appreciates the poignancy of silence, the chief segues between snippets of his life, a tapestry stitched with threads of pure gold.
“I started school when I was 12,” he whispers. “Before that, I only spoke our language. But when I went to boarding school, if we spoke one word of our language they’d wash our mouths out with soap and water.
“They’d march us to school and when you sat in a classroom, you wouldn’t hear a pin drop. Discipline wasn’t a problem then like it is now. Nowadays they cuss and say nasty words. There are no cuss words in the Indian language. People say to us ‘What if you get really mad?’ I say, that’s when we use your language.”
During World War II, the patriotic young Lakota tribesman enlisted as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne. He was shot out of the sky over Normandy, falling to the ground riddled with bullet holes. The first medics on the scene left him for dead but he proved to be a survivor.
After the war, Dave took on any adrenaline-pumping challenge that came his way. He played semi-professional baseball, was a race-car driver and acted in 37 Hollywood movies, including playing a pirate opposite Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. He met John Wayne, Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth; and he reminisces fondly about dancing with Marilyn Monroe during the filming of River of No Return in 1954.
“She was a really nice girl,” he says sadly. “I really hate it when they call her a dope fiend. It just wasn’t that way. They told a bunch of lies about her.”
A group of visiting tourists has gathered around our table, eager to join in the conversation. One points at Dave’s Lakota-style beaded felt hat, perched on a full head of wispy white hair. “What’s that badge?” she asks. It’s only then that I notice that the hat is adorned with a Queensland Police badge — another curious Australian connection.
“Oh, a man came by here about three weeks ago,” Dave says nonchalantly. “Made me an honorary member of the Queensland Police Force.” As if it happens every day.
Another woman asks a more personal question. “Excuse me sir, where did you get those beautiful blue eyes?”
Chief Dave pauses and turns to me with an almost imperceptible wink. “From the doctor,” he says with deadpan humour. “They’ve been operated on. And they don’t see none too good either.”
The women drift away, summonsed to their tour of Tatanka’s grounds. The topic now turns to the subject of family, a subject Dave clearly relishes.
“I have a multicultural family,” he tells me. “My son married a Japanese girl, my daughter married a black man. And my wife (actress Josee Kesteman) is from Belgium, she’s lived here for 40 years. I have three great-great- grandchildren; but I’m not sure how many grandchildren, I stopped counting when it got to 28.”
And it’s this young generation of Lakota youngsters that gives Dave hope for the future.
“It’s the seventh generation who really messed everything up,” he explains. “They lost the Indian languages and got away from the traditional culture. That generation spoke phonetics and we didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand us. The fifth and sixth generations still speak the language.
“The 8th generation is different again. They’ve got questions about the traditional way of life and the original language, and they want to go back.”
Our conversation is interrupted yet again, this time by manager Steve. “You’re on, buddy!” he says to Dave.
This is why the Chief has come to Tatanka today — to talk in front of visiting tourists, volunteering his time to share stories of his wonderful, enthralling life.
Although he does this frequently, no one — not even Steve — knows when he’ll turn up. For visitors like me who happen upon his presence, it’s simply a bonus.
The old man slowly eases himself out of his chair, supported by a walking stick. He makes his way through the museum, past posters and costumes from Dancing with Wolves (in which he also starred), and into the darkened main room of the museum. In front of a busload of 40 tourists, Chief Dave perches on a stool and takes the microphone.
Even with amplification, it’s a struggle to hear his words. But these tourists from middle America are immediately spellbound; you can hear a pin drop as Dave speaks of his people, his culture, his past. He reminds the audience why they have come to this museum — to learn about the bison. “As long as there is an Indian alive there will be buffalo and prairie dog, because they belong to nature,” he tells them. “The hunters never killed more buffalo than what they needed. They didn’t overkill, that’s the way they used to do it. They considered the land sacred.
“Our people do not hunt any animal that eats meat. So if you’re a vegetarian, you’d better watch it.” Cue laughter.
After 15 minutes or so, Steve Laffey indicates that it’s time to wind up the talk. Chief Dave gives a cut-throat symbol, drawing his finger across his wrinkled neck.
“What does this mean?” he jokes, blue eyes twinkling through the clouds. “Think it means I talk too much.”
Julie Miller was a guest of Rocky Mountain International (RMI).
United Airlines connect Los Angeles and San Francisco to Rapid City via Denver. united.com.
Deadwood is about a two-hour drive from Rapid City.
The Lodge at Deadwood Gaming Resort is just across the road from Tatanka. Rates from $89 per night.
Tatanka — Story of the Bison is open between May 15 and September 30 from 9am to 5pm. Entry costs $US6.50 ($7.30) for adults, $US5.50 children 6-11 years. storyofthebison.com
For South Dakota Tourism, go to travelsd.com.