"Rosebud...." That final, mystifying word, uttered by dying newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane as portrayed by Orson Welles in the film Citizen Kane, transformed a childhood sled, conjured from memory, into an icon of American culture. No one who grew up in a place where hills and winter snow converge would find it mysterious, I suspect, that an elderly man overwhelmed by a longing for lost innocence might recall a treasured sled.
From the first moment a child hurtles headlong (and headfirst) down a hard-packed slope, the sled embodies freedom, joy and the sheer thrill of skirting the edge of chaos. An acquisition within the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York City bears witness to the universality of this experience. A late-19th-century sled fashioned from eight buffalo ribs—as simple, utilitarian and elegant as a Shaker chair—was made by members of South Dakota's Lakota Sioux tribe. Johanna Gorelick, of the NMAI's George Gustav Heye Center, says the buffalo ribs—lashed together to form runners—were once likely covered in buffalo leather. "Not only is the sled beautiful to look at," she adds, "but it's fascinating to see yet another way the buffalo was used by the Plains Indians."
Contemplating such a simple object, it's possible to understand how fundamental the bison was to the Sioux, providing food, clothing, shelter, even children's playthings. One comprehends, too, the enormity of the disaster when one of the tactics used to defeat the tribes was the systematic slaughter of the herds. Most of us can call up from memory photographic images of professional hunters, long rifles in hand, standing on towering heaps of buffalo skulls, as if those charnel mounds were natural features of the landscape. There might always be new sleds for the children of New York and New Hampshire, but the Lakota's cunningly crafted winter toy, in its small, intimate way, represents the end of a way of life.
The precise provenance of this one remains unknown, but the story of its donors is worth noting. The sled came to the museum in 1961 as the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alfred A. Frantz. Alfred, born in 1908, was raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and attended the University of South Dakota (USD). As a young man in the 1930s, he journeyed to New York City to make a name—or at least a living—for himself. He did some travel writing and managed to find work at the Institute of Foreign Travel, a publicity outlet for several transatlantic passenger shipping lines.
In 1938, when Frantz needed people to greet the Norwegian liner Oslofjord—at the time, young Americans met the major lines' vessels at the pier—he employed a fellow South Dakotan, an aspiring actress. Though the two had attended USD at the same time, they had never met. Her family name—she was a Lakota Sioux—was Yellow Robe. (Her paternal grandfather had been chief of the tribe in 1876, at the time of the Battle of Little Bighorn. Her great-uncle had been the legendary warrior Sitting Bull.) An eloquent storyteller with a gift for conveying the lore and legend of the Sioux, she also had begun working for the New York City Parks Department, during the 1930s, presiding over a re-created Indian village, a summer attraction at Long Island's Jones Beach. Alfred married her in 1951. He continued to write and she continued to act, performing in theaters and dramatizing the culture of the Plains Indians. Alfred died in 1993, his wife in 1992.
Was the sled, a treasure passed from child to child in Mrs. Frantz's family, a cherished heirloom? (Do you know where your old Flexible Flyer is?) Had she herself once swooped down hills on it? The museum archives shed no light. There are fragments of information, however, so tantalizing that I've withheld them (with considerable effort) until now: in the 1930s, the young Lakota woman, according to her New York Times obituary, worked at CBS Radio at the same time as Orson Welles. And MissYellow Robe's first name? The same as the reservation from which she came: Rosebud.
Owen Edwards is co-author, with Betty Cornfeld, of Quintessence: The Quality of Having "It."