The Great Buffalo Caper
When two Boulder businessmen financed the creation of a one-of-a-kind piece of art—a buffalo skeleton with Native American myths carved over every inch of bone by an artist named "Big Jim"—they thought it was an opportunity to be a part of something important. And, just maybe, they might make some money. But what started as a high-minded project quickly devolved into a surreal mystery.
Running his Art Mart in the heart of Boulder, Rick Rippberger had seen all kinds of people walk into his store. Buyers, sellers, artists, browsers, they waltzed in buttoned-down or looking like hippie holdovers, some appearing not all that different than the street performers outside on Pearl Street. But Rippberger had never seen anybody like the man who strode into his place on that day in early 1994. The guy was about six-and-a-half feet tall, 250 pounds, muscular, with some of the broadest shoulders Ripp-berger had ever seen. The man's tan, weathered face was the face of an Indian, or at least Rippberger's idea of an Indian: high cheekbones, prominent nose, narrow, piercing eyes, a long ponytail. In between his cowboy boots and white cowboy hat he wore all denim, except for an oval-shaped belt buckle that might have weighed two pounds.
The man moseyed about the store's inventory—lots of sculptures and paintings of cowboys and Indians, horses, and more than a few buffalo—and then approached Rippberger. In the voice of an Indian, or at least in the slow cadence and understated tone Rippberger associated with Indians, the man introduced himself as the South Dakota-based artist James Durham. "Big Jim" is what folks called him. Art Mart was selling some buffalo-hide robes Durham had made, and he had come to discuss the pricing, wanted to make sure he was being fairly compensated. With that business handled, Big Jim said he had another piece that might interest Rippberger. Durham clarified: It was not a finished piece; rather, it was still just a "vision." Durham believed if he were able to complete the work, it would be spiritual and good and might well change the world. Only thing was, to realize the vision he needed financing. Intrigued by Big Jim, Rippberger invited him out for a meal to hear more.
Durham talked a bit about himself, said he was mixed-blood Indian and pureblood Vietnam veteran and biker. He spoke of his visions: One day, not so long ago, he and some Vietnam-veteran brothers he'd met in 1988 at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., came together in a lodge back East to join in a sweat, that ancient American Indian ritual of purification, and to pray to the Creator for other veterans. Some of the vets brought their families; Durham's wife, son, and daughter came along. Reluctantly, Durham allowed his seven-year-old son, Nick, to join the vets in the lodge.
Midway through the sweat, as Big Jim told Rippberger and would later put in writing, his son passed out. When Nick awoke, he told his father he'd had a vision of his dad in a big green field, wearing buckskin clothes, hair below his belt, with bushy eyebrows. In the boy's dream, Durham had his chanunpa—a ceremonial pipe—in his left hand. He was standing on a prairie looking at millions of buffalo. The herd approached Durham and split, creating a path for one big bull buffalo that walked right up to Durham and spoke to him. It was another language, but Durham and this buffalo chatted for a while. As Big Jim wrapped up the story of his son's dream: "Finally, [the buffalo] started to walk away, but then he stopped. He turned his head back and looked at [me]. He said something to [me] and [I] nodded. Then he walked backed into the herd and just disappeared into the millions of them."
Rippberger would be the first to admit he's no expert on American Indian culture. He grew up in Boulder and did well financially as the owner-operator of a service station and Potter's Restaurant. In time, Rippberger sold off the businesses and invested in real estate and other ventures, including the Art Mart, which he co-owned and operated with his wife. Still, Rippberger knew enough about the Trail of Tears and the White Man's role in it to feel sympathy, even a smidge of culpability. In American Indian art, he saw mysticism and nobility and suffering. And so, in Boulder, a town of artsy, politically correct progressives, Big Jim couldn't have found a more receptive audience than Rippberger, who was enthralled as Durham spoke of a second vision.
Not long after the sweat, Big Jim fell asleep and dreamed he saw a buffalo skeleton standing in the middle of a big room with a high ceiling and a wood floor. He noticed pictures carved onto all of the bones. Then the buffalo skeleton turned and spoke. "Pilamayapelo," it said, meaning, "Thank you." When Big Jim awoke, he told Rippberger, he picked up a sketchbook and drew the scenes he had seen on the bones. They were the seven sacred rites of the Lakota people, and a rendering of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Suddenly, as Durham put it to Rippberger, the visions made sense: The Creator wanted him to scrimshaw, or carve, all of the pictures he had dreamed onto the skeleton of a buffalo, and to share the buffalo's teachings, the Lakota tribe's religion, with the world.
Durham showed Rippberger the divinely inspired sketches he'd done, and estimated it would cost about $30,000 to get the project going, with a few thousand dollars here and there afterward. Big Jim was confident that the finished piece would be a sought-after museum exhibit, and that the money from such a tour would repay Rippberger his initial investment and likely turn a profit. Rippberger was sold. It sounded like a chance to be a part of something "humanitarian" and maybe make some money. He liked the idea so much that he had an idea of his own. Rippberger wanted Big Jim to meet a friend, Peder Lund. The guy had an office in Boulder, across the street from Rippberger's old service station. Lund had money and knew a thing or two about promotion, as he was the owner of a unique publishing house, Paladin Press, which published books like Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors and How to Become a Professional Con Artist.