MEDORA – Ross Rolshoven, a collector of Western memorabilia and Native American artifacts, obtained the pictographic vest at the Brian Liebel Wild West Show in Mesa, Arizona, several years ago.
Since that time he’s been actively researching the background of the vest in the US and Canada for its connection to Sitting Bull, the war leader and medicine leader of the Hunkpapa Sioux. More recently, Rolshoven has recovered even more information to support that the vest belonged to Sitting Bull.
The vest is on display in the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame’s Center of Western Heritage & Culture in Medora. Rolshoven, of Grand Forks, is a NDCHF board member.
As a result of Rolshoven’s recent research, many indicators point to Sitting Bull having originally owned the vest.
During research at the Hudson Bay Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Rolshoven obtained a copy of a news interview with Maj. James Morrow Walsh of the North West Mounted Police Force while Sitting Bull was in Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
According to historical accounts, Sitting Bull led the Sioux resistance against US incursion into Indian lands often leading to battle. The most famous battle occurred June 25-26, 1876, in southern Montana near the Little Bighorn River where Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Oglala war leader, defeated the US Army troops of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. When Sitting Bull went to Canada, Walsh developed a friendship with him.
Walsh notes in the news interview that Bull, as he refers to Sitting Bull, “limps somewhat, having been shot in the right foot; she is a warrior every inch of him, fond of the chase and and its prairie life.”
The back of the vest shows four mounted warriors on horseback. Rolshoven said the top rider on the left side has red beads in the right ankle area and just below the knee, indicating a wound. This corresponds with Walsh’s interview, saying Sitting Bull limps and had been shot in the right foot, according to Rolshoven.
The top image shows a warrior carrying a flag with a cross in the upper corner. Rolshoven believes this represents the British flag from that time period. He compared the flag on the vest with a Pusser’s Rum advertisement which he said helped him realize what the flag on the vest was representing.
A book about Sitting Bull’s life and legacy by Ernie LaPointe, Sitting Bull’s great-grandson, also confirms Sitting Bull was shot in the leg when he was younger, Rolshoven said.
The front of the vest has two tobacco plants. Rolshoven said this is “highly unusual in Sioux beadwork.” He said the top plant is a Nicotiana tobacco plant with a seven-star petal.
He said the bottom plant is a tobacco plant “That was typically grown by the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikaras in northwestern North Dakota. Showing the tobacco plants on the vest would be indicative of Sitting Bull’s stature as a medicine man and someone who was seeking a peaceful existence away from war,” Rolshoven said.
He said a photo of Sitting Bull’s only adopted son, One Bull, or Henry Little Soldier, shows One Bull/Little Solder wearing a beaded vest of the same style of beaded tobacco plant on the upper front of the vest that Rolshoven owns.
A copy of the 1918 Botanical Gazette, a University of Chicago Press publication, that Rolshoven obtained gives an extensive description of the Nicotiana tobacco plant.
Rolshoven said Sitting Bull was well known for counting coup on enemies during battles rather than killing them. He said the vest shows the bottom two riders with coup sticks.
“It should also be noted the bottom two riders are wearing the open tipi legging design, which is the style of legging Sitting Bull wore at the Battle of the Little Bighorn,” Rolshoven said. He said there are ledger drawings showing Sitting Bull with that style of legging at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Two horseback riders on the back top of the vest are carrying British flags. “Putting the British flag on the vest is very consistent with Sitting Bull’s desire to be viewed as a British Indian,” Rolshoven said.
Rolshoven said he has gone through Maj. Walsh’s handwritten book about Sitting Bull’s time spent in Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, and the book confirms Native Americans had beads and were actively doing beadwork there. Rolshoven said in the book Walsh indicated Sitting Bull had three wives while he was at Wood Mountain and two other wives were sent back to their families during that time. “This meant he had a total of five different wives while he was up in Canada. This means that certainly there would have been a wife who could have been assigned the task of making the vest for Sitting Bull,” Rolshoven said.
An appraiser noted the vest is “very unusual in that it is pictorial” and that the four warriors on horseback on the back of the vest appear to be representations of the same man. Her findings de ella in her appraisal for Rolshoven agree with his other findings about the vest.
“The vest was made for a particular warrior, a great fighter, chief and diplomat in the 1880 timeframe of the Sioux who would have had the authority to broker an agreement with representatives of the Canadian government. Only one Sioux chief has the qualifications for this: Sitting Bull of the Hunkapapa Sioux, who led his people from him into Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Sitting Bull was also about 5’9” and of slender build, the right size for the vest,” according to the appraisal.
Rolshoven has searched for a photo or photos of Sitting Bull wearing the vest while at Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, but has not been able to find any. He said there really weren’t any photographers there during that timeframe.
About three years ago, Rolshoven took the vest to the Antiques Roadshow held in West Fargo, where he met with Bruce Shackelford, an artifact expert. “I have agreed with my research on the matter,” Rolshoven said.
Rolshoven continues his research but said he’s “remove certain” the vest he has originally was Sitting Bull’s vest.