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.
Big Jim, Teri, and Beemer not only worked together in the schoolhouse, engaged in the painstaking and meticulous work of sanding, engraving, and coloring the bones on makeshift desks of plywood on sawhorses; they also lived there together. Durham likened the close quarters to what he and Beemer had experienced in the military. Similarly, there was no mistaking the chain of command: Big Jim was the general, or rather the general-chaplin-shaman-cult-leader-in-chief. He made sure that every day they burned purifying sage and shared the chanunpa pipe. He encouraged them to stay spiritually focused and to refrain from cussing. He led house meetings. Smoking Marlboros and drinking shots of espresso, he preached and inspired. Durham had sketched out precisely what scenes he wanted on each bone, and when Teri was carving the "wiyakas" on the bison's ribs Durham asked if she knew what they were. She did not. Big Jim explained: "They're all about spirit. Each of them represents a person, 163 people. As I look at each one, I think about a different person I've known. The wiyakas each have individuality; they're fat or thin, crooked, each is unique. Like people are."
Standing on the open South Dakota plains, surrounded by hundreds of Indians and tepees, Rick Rippberger watched Big Jim dance around a towering cottonwood tree. The summer sky was clear and the sun was strong. Yet Durham and other Indian men danced around the cottonwood for hours in the blistering heat, chanting what sounded like ancient prayers in ancient repetitive rhythms. Rippberger watched as Durham pierced hooks through his chest flesh; the hooks were attached to long ropes that dangled from the top of the cottonwood. After more time spent dancing and chanting, Big Jim gradually leaned back with hooks in his chest pulling taut the ropes. Farther and farther he leaned back, arms outstretched, the ropes pulling tighter, blood trickling from the pierced holes in his chest, until the massive man's back was nearly parallel with the ground. The hooks snapped loose, flesh ripped, Big Jim stumbled backward, and the hooks were jerked all the way to the very top of the tree and stuck there.
It was the summer of 1994, and with the Sacred Buffalo project under way, Durham had invited Rippberger out to the Pine Ridge Reservation to witness a Sun Dance, a sacred, communal ritual of Great Plains Indians. In the language of the Lakota, the dominant tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the Sun Dance is "wiwanyag wachipi," meaning, "dance looking at the sun." Orchestrated by tribes annually in the summer, the Sun Dance is a days-long series of rituals that draws thousands of Indians, who camp, pray, dance, sacrifice, and celebrate together. The buffalo looms large over the Sun Dance as an important symbol, as the great tatanka had long been a source of tools, weapons, food, clothing, and therefore inspiration for the American Indians of the Plains. At the literal and ceremonial center of the Sun Dance is a large wooden pole or tree, which serves as something of an altar. Indian men and women dance around it until exhausted, as a form of sacrifice to the Creator, whom they hope will grant them visions and enlightenment. Some men tether themselves to the center pole, as Durham had done, to show a willingness to suffer for the Creator. For similar reasons, some men hook a buffalo skull to their chest and drag it with them as they chant prayers.
Rippberger considered it an honor to have been invited. So that he could come bearing gifts, on the way from Boulder he had purchased dozens of colorful blankets and some 400 pounds of buffalo meat, hauled out in a freezer. He was overwhelmed by the sight of the Sun Dance camp on the massive, open fields. On the prehistoric-looking plains, he spotted hundreds of tepees, tents, campers, and people camped with only sleeping bags and cardboard. At the perimeter of the camp, Rippberger had been stopped by Indians who wanted to know why the White Man was here. As the jittery art dealer tried to explain, Beemer appeared and informed the Indians the guy was with Jim Durham. The Indian men stepped aside. Beemer, who was on foot, directed Rippberger to drive behind him and to positively not veer off course or else pale face might quickly find himself in hostile territory.
Rippberger noticed there was a hierarchy to the camp: Those with the sleeping bags on the outer reaches were the poorest and least influential Indians. The trailers and tents got bigger as he approached the center; these were the Indians of means and power. And this is where Beemer set up Rippberger, among the chiefs and their families, close to the Sun Dance pole, the towering cottonwood. Rippberger noted that Durham indeed must have ranked high on the totem, and then watched Big Jim do his awesome Sun Dance.
Durham writes plenty about himself in Sacred Buffalo, but doesn't offer much autobiographical information. He describes himself as a mixed-blood American Indian, but beyond that it's unclear what his heritage is. He wrote that one of his grandfathers was named George Poor Thunder and the other was called Fools Crow. He reveals that he has known "Dr. Bob," meaning that he was a recovering alcoholic, and that he was not a classically trained artist. "[I] got kicked out of art class in seventh grade because I wouldn't draw fruit." He married a woman named Beth, who was in the Navy, and had two children, Nick, and a girl, Crystal. What autobiographical shreds Durham shares in Sacred Buffalo are wrapped in visions and profound religious experiences, like the Sun Dance.
After his dance that day in the summer of 1994, Big Jim told Rippberger it was of great significance that his hooks flew to the top of the tree and stuck. It meant the Creator had accepted the Sacred Buffalo, that it was blessed. Shortly thereafter, however, Rippberger and Lund came to think the thing was cursed. Four months became six months, then eight months, and Big Jim and his crew still had not finished the Sacred Buffalo, and they kept asking the Boulder White Men for more and more money. It's unclear how much Big Jim paid Beemer and Teri. Ostensibly the Boulder bankroll was to cover the salaries, food, and rent. But when it was close to a year in, and Rippberger and Lund had invested approximately $30,000 apiece, their financial benevolence began to waver. There were heated telephone exchanges over cash flow. One especially tense moment occurred when the bank called to inform Durham that a Buffalo LLC check supposed to cover the rent for the studio hadn't arrived. Big Jim threw down the phone, and, almost directly quoting from the movie Top Gun, said to Beemer, "His mouth is writing checks his ass can't cover."
In the summer of 1995, more than a year since the project had begun, Durham at last gazed upon the completed masterpiece. It was just as he had seen in one of his many visions: He sat on a chair in a room of wooden floors with a high ceiling, alone with his buffalo (alone, that is, except for his Sacred Buffalo book coauthor and a photographer). And Big Jim spoke. Moved by the mighty bison he had created, Durham proclaimed, "Power like this hasn't been seen in a long time. It'll flat-out walk tomorrow. It'll walk around the world."
The Sacred Buffalo's inaugural tour wasn't quite the globetrot Durham and the LLC imagined. Lund had hired his ex-wife, Marsha Lund, to handle the tour and marketing. Marsha had met Lund one night in a Boulder bar, and they ended up married for 10 years. She collected silver and turquoise Native American-inspired jewelry, and considered herself an expert. She wrote a book on the subject for Paladin, which, Lund and his ex determined, gave her some frame of reference to spearhead the Sacred Buffalo run. Initially Marsha felt encouraged by the interest in the buffalo. She thought she had the prestigious Field Museum in Chicago on tap. But, as she recently told me, "Jim insisted on getting on the phone with them, and the next thing I know the lady there calls me back and says she's changed her mind." The tour that did come together began in the winter of 1995 with a one-month exhibit at CAM-PLEX Heritage Center Art Gallery in Gillette, Wyoming, with at least six stops thereafter at similarly modest venues, including a five-day stint at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
With the Sacred Buffalo roaming such sites, the tensions among the LLC partners intensified. Boxes of Sacred Buffalo books went out, as Lund and Rippberger recall, but the total sales revenue for them did not come back. And although Rippberger and Lund believed they were sending checks to cover Durham's expenses to travel with the piece and appear at the venues, Big Jim would call them from the road and say he needed more. The Boulder financiers grew more frustrated, especially because, Ripp-berger and Lund say, they were covering expenses they hadn't counted on. One day, Lund says, he got a call from Big Jim, who said he needed some money because he was behind in child-support payments; if Durham didn't pay he was going to lose his driver's license and possibly be arrested. "At that point," Lund says, "we were well into the project, and if Durham couldn't travel it would have been over. So I paid him a few thousand dollars for a buffalo-hide robe he'd made. Every time you talked to him, he needed money."