Ceremonial artifact had been in Heath family for decades
By Matt Taylor
After spending over a century with a Methow Valley family, a ceremonial Sioux war club was donated to a South Dakota museum last week, where it will be preserved and placed on display for visitors to enjoy.
The club was originally a gift from a Sioux tribe to Sylvester and Minnie Skinner, osteopathic doctors in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as a token of appreciation for their work providing medical services to tribal members throughout their careers.
The club was then passed down through their family — eventually landing in the hands of their grandson, the late Harold Heath, who settled in the Methow during the 1960s.
After displaying the artifact in her home for 35 years, Tina Heath, Harold’s wife, decided that it was time to return it to South Dakota where it might be valued by members of the tribe it came from.
With too many children and grandchildren to select one to receive it, she decided instead to donate it. “There are so many of them; what are you going to do with it?” Heath said.
“I thought that maybe it would be a good idea for it to go back.”
She contacted Richard Hart, a longtime friend and expert on local tribes, for help locating the tribe it originated from and the museum it should return to. “She called me up one day and said she thought the tomahawk should be returned,” said Hart. “The whole thing took several months.”
As part of his effort, Hart enlisted the help of Zyah Evans, a recent graduate of the Independent Learning Center who Hart mentored. Evans, who is of Sioux descent, played an integral role in identifying the artifact’s origin and researching its background.
“[Zyah] was one of the main reasons I said I’d do it,” said Hart. “It seemed like a perfect project for her.”
With the help of Evans’ grandfather and a number of anthropologists across the country, Hart identified the artifact as Yankton — a tribe of Sioux people from southeastern South Dakota.
The tomahawk, more commonly referred to as a “Plains War Club,” was crafted from stone and braided horse hair. By the time that it was gifted in the early 1900s, this type of club was used primarily for ceremonial purposes, usually as a gift for someone the tribe wanted to thank or as a symbol of respect.
“It is a beautiful object, a work of art,” said Hart. “It was really high praise.”
Once the selected museum decided to accept the donation, they offered to have Heath deliver the artifact in person. “I’d always wanted to see Mount Rushmore, so I decided to go!” she said prior to her departure.
Heath made the trip to South Dakota during the first week of July and presented the artifact to curators at the Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society in Pierre, the state’s capital. The museum, built into a hillside, is part of a 63,000-square-foot complex, with areas dedicated to artifact display, state archives, preservation and storage.
Having donated the tomahawk, Heath remains satisfied. “It’s just been sitting on my mantel,” she said. “With it in the museum, lots of people can enjoy it.”