For more than 100 years, Albert Afraid of Hawk has been resting in a grave between a dirt road and wooded hills in Danbury's Wooster Cemetery. Now, finally, he is getting ready to go home.
Afraid of Hawk, a rough rider with the Buffalo Bill Wild West exhibition, was an Oglala Sioux, today better known as a member of South Dakota’s Oglala Lakota tribe. Back then, many Lakota traveled with the show, which returned each year to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to bring home tribal members, and to enlist new ones for the worldwide tour of Buffalo Bill Cody’s exhibition.
In the year 1900, the exhibition came through Danbury, as it had in years before and after. Cody was friends with PT Barnum, who was living in Bridgeport, and helped Cody with his travel scheduling. The exhibition even performed with the Bailey Circus.
But on this particularly fateful trip, Afraid of Hawk never made it past the Danbury stop. A handsome, tall, 20 year old, he fell victim to a bad can of corn and died in Danbury Hospital. The newspaper's sub-headline read, Corn More Deadly Than Bullets, referencing that others had also become quite ill.
The article in News Times read, “There was a strange scene at the hospital in this city last Thursday night, when two Indian chiefs, full blooded Sioux, arrayed in their native costumes, their faces still smeared with battle paint, stood over the corpse of their tribesman and pleaded with the Great Spirit to take his soul safely over the unknown river, upon the farther shores of which the happy hunting ground lies.”
Resting in anonymity for more than a century, Afraid of Hawk lay buried in an unmarked grave, paid for by Buffalo Bill. It wasn’t until 2008, when Robert Young, who worked at the Wooster Cemetery, came upon a burial card with Afraid of Hawk’s name on it. “I knew that Buffalo Bill had come through Danbury and that an Indian had died here. When I came across Afraid of Hawk, and saw that Buffalo Bill had bought the grave, I had to delve deeper into it,” Young said.
Young, president of the Board of Trustees at the Danbury Museum and Historical Society and a dedicated history buff, explained, “I was working at the cemetery, and there are sections where individuals were buried without markers. Some were indigent, but this section had a list of names that I was able to match up with the numbers.”
Young recognized that in all likelihood, Afraid of Hawk’s family might not know what had happened to him. “The poor guy died of food poisoning," Young said. "They were on the road and couldn’t do what we do now; have the body embalmed and pay to return him by plane. They did the best they could, which was to buy a burial spot here in Danbury, where he died.”
Afraid of Hawk’s situation remained in Young’s mind, and he set about tracking down the Lakota family 2000 miles away from Danbury, Connecticut, back to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
“The first thing I did was get on the internet, where I found the photo, and the painting," Young said, adding that the painting had recently sold at auction for $120,000. “I contacted the tribe to see if they would be interested in repatriating Albert’s remains. I made a couple of phone calls, sent a couple of letters, and I came up with the Pine Ridge burial assistance office who found the family members. The next thing I knew I had a phone call from them.”
Young was so excited he booked himself a flight to Rapid City and drove two hours down long desolate roads to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the only place to meet anyone is Big Bat’s gas station. The Afraid of Hawk family drove almost four hours to meet him, the day after an ice and snow storm, from the Cheyenne River Reservation where the family had relocated many years ago.
Young reported that when he met the family, the oldest Afraid of Hawk, Daniel, who will be 82 in October, was so excited, he immediately got up and walked across the street to the tribal offices to try to get a letter authorizing Young to proceed.
Young said, “While I was there they were enthusiastic, can’t wait! And then once I came back, I heard nothing.”
Young’s growing frustration was hard for him to bear, but he never forgot about Albert. It was almost two years later before he heard from Marlis Afraid of Hawk.
Marlis, 55, a grandmother, and the person who seemed to assume many of the family responsibilities, explained that she had never even seen a picture of Albert. “My dad’s relatives, Esther and Laura Condon/Between the Lodge, went to Washington around 1978, and they brought back a picture of him. Nobody had ever mentioned him before, and I wondered, who is that person and what happened to him?”
Marlis was overcome with emotion as she told how Albert has been reaching out to her from beyond the grave. “I had this dream quite a while ago. I went into ceremony, and I asked them who it was. It kept coming to me, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I told them my dream, and wanted to know the meaning of this dream, and they said this was Albert, come to me in my dream. But I didn’t pay attention. And then the funeral director from Danbury called last week, and I talked to her.”
Travel costs being what they are, arranging for a member of the Afraid of Hawk family to oversee the repatriation would have been difficult. Fortunately, Young remembered meeting a Lakota man in the area several years ago. Wendell Deer With Horns had married a woman who had worked with Young, and as coincidence would have it, Deer With Horns was the uncle to Marlis's sister-in-law's husband.
Deer With Horns has now been assigned the honor of being present when the 112 year grave is opened. In the Lakota way, songs will be sung and prayers will be prayed, and Wendell and Young anticipate bringing Afraid of Hawk home to South Dakota in the coming months.
Deer With Horns said about the work Young had done, “It was the most honorable thing a man could do. I am glad he called, and we are all glad to know how Albert really died.”
“All the pieces are coming together now,” Marlis said.
“It's been a long road. To bring closure to Albert’s family, and return him to his family is so rewarding,” said Diane Hassan, genealogy specialist and researcher at the Danbury Museum. “There are archives at the Buffalo Bill Museum, and this took me to a lot of really cool places. From finding photos of him on-line and putting a face to the name, finding the archives of the old Danbury newspapers, it all helped us to find out about Albert.”
During the days the Wild West exhibition was traveling, and still until this day, Deer With Horns said there has been a holdover of anti-Indian racism that is never talked about in the media. He said that he was impressed that Afraid of Hawk was so well taken care of so long ago, and that Buffalo Bill had said to spare no expense. Deer With Horns noted that Young took so much of his own time to track down the family, locate the unmarked grave, bring in the state archeologist, and finally, do the necessary legwork to send Afraid of Hawk home.
Danbury’s Mayor Mark Boughton said, “The work and research that went into the connecting the dots is incredible, and to think the family never knew what happened to him. It's great that the final stop for this individual will be with his family.”
Boughton spoke about Danbury’s long history of being a heavily multi-cultural city, and said, “This is a fascinating part of our local history. The description in the newspaper of the residents standing on the hill, with their heads bowed in respect, it says a lot about our community even 100 years ago.”
(Note: In the original News-Times article, it was stated that all of Afraid of Hawks belongings and outfits had been shipped to his home in Pine Ridge. While those belongings never arrived, it is known that he was not buried with any of his own clothing.)