SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- The remains of a man who died young while touring the world with Buffalo Bill were hidden for more than a century in an unmarked grave some 1,700 miles from his South Dakota Indian reservation.
Now Albert Afraid of Hawk is returning home. He'll be reburied Sunday in accordance with Lakota tradition, thanks largely to a curious and persistent Connecticut history buff.
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Bob Young uncovered records of the Oglala Sioux member's death at a Connecticut hospital after a bout with food poisoning from eating bad corn. A few years ago, Young pieced the details together and reached out to Afraid of Hawk's family members.
"It's something that should have happened a long time ago, but it didn't," said Marlis Afraid of Hawk, 54, whose father, Daniel Afraid of Hawk, is Albert's last living nephew. "... Nobody even questioned where he is buried or where this person is. It was left at that."
Afraid of Hawk began traveling with Buffalo Bill's world-famous troupe known as the Congress of Rough Riders of the World two years before he died at age 20. He was among a rotating cast that helped educate and entertain thousands of spectators eager to hear firsthand accounts of life on the unruly terrain.
Last month, Marlis Afraid of Hawk, Daniel Afraid of Hawk and other relatives traveled to Connecticut from their homes on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota to witness the disinterment of Albert's remains.
Young, president of a museum in Danbury, Conn., had identified the location of Afraid of Hawk's grave at a cemetery there.
"At the start it was just another research project, but each piece I came up with got me more interested," said Young, who was working at the cemetery at the time of the discovery.
Nicholas Bellantoni, the state archeologist for Connecticut, knew the coffin would have long disintegrated, and he prepared the family for the possibility that the acidic Connecticut soil had left little behind. Bellantoni and a team of excavators gently dug a couple of feet into the ground with a backhoe. At about 4½ feet, they began getting hits on a metal detector, signaling they were getting closer to nails that had been in the coffin.
Then, once a piece of soil dislodged, bone began to poke out. It was Albert's skull.
"I knew right there that Albert had been preserved, at least in part, and that they would be able to bring Albert home," Bellantoni said.
It was a breakthrough for family members, who had been searching for decades. In the 1970s they even traveled to Washington, D.C., to learn more about Afraid of Hawk's death, returning with a picture but little information.
The team in Connecticut also recovered hair fibers, copper beads from an earring, a copper ring and six handles from Albert's coffin. Bellantoni said he was surprised at how ornate the coffin handles were.
Now those remains are in South Dakota, where a wake and funeral will be held to allow Afraid of Hawk to enter the spirit world.
He was born in 1879, the third of seven children belonging to Emil Afraid of Hawk and his wife, White Mountain. His brother Richard was among the survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Afraid of Hawk joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in 1898 with a childhood friend from the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and he apparently sent money back to family members living on the Pine Ridge reservation while performing with the show.
Buffalo Bill, whose name was William F. Cody, regularly employed about 50 Native Americans -- mostly Lakota -- during the 30-year run of the show in the late 1880s and early 1900s, said Lynn Houze, assistant curator at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.
The shows were made up of 15 to 24 acts, including sharpshooters, races and performances depicting cowboys against Indians. The show helped catapult the American cowboy to icon status, and Cody believed he was helping to preserve the Native American culture, even if they were, at times, presented in a stereotypical manner. Cody encouraged Native American performers to retain their language, rituals and beliefs but often portrayed them as savages attacking white settlers.
"At that time with the reservation system, the government was forcing a lot of the kids to be sent to Carlisle or other Indian Schools. This way, a lot of them were able to continue to be Indian and preserve their culture," Houze said. "He became their friend and was an advocate of theirs."
But life in the show was difficult. Performers arrived in a new city almost daily, setting up camp before putting on one show in the afternoon and another in the evening. After that, they'd pack up and head to the next town.
Other performers-- both Native Americans and non-Natives -- who died during the show's run were often buried in the city where they died, Houze said. In the late 1990s, the remains of Chief Long Wolf, also Lakota, were returned after a British woman read about his death and tracked down family members in South Dakota. Long Wolf, 52, died in 1892 of pneumonia while performing in London. He was buried in the same casket as a 17-month-old Lakota girl, Star, who died after falling from a horse while performing in a show.
Marlis Afraid of Hawk said she is relieved that for Albert, the long road home is nearly complete.
"Now everything has come into place," she said.