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  • Writer's pictureTamara Stands and Looks Back - Spotted Tail

Chief John Spotted Tail: "Legacy Returned" and The Tale of Two Families

Updated: 3 days ago

Chief John Spotted Tail displaying his great great granfather's War Bonet
Chief John Spotted Tail displaying his great-great-grandfather's War Bonet, Chief Spotted Tail. Photo by John Graybill

Dear Friends of Curtis Legacy Foundation,

We are thrilled to share an event showing our ongoing efforts to bring Indigenous culture to the forefront. In August of 2022, founders John and Coleen Graybill had the distinct honor of photographing Chief John Spotted Tail holding his great-great-grandfather Chief Spotted Tail's, sacred headdress. This headdress along with other personal Chief Spotted Tail items, were originally gifted to Major Cisero Newell from Chief Spotted Tail over 140 years ago and have now returned to a Spotted Tail descendant.


In these captivating images, Chief John Spotted Tail exudes strength and dignity, adorned in traditional regalia including a warrior shirt and headdress. This moment was especially poignant as it echoes the deep historical connections between Chief Spotted Tail and our organization. The Curtis Legacy Foundation has long been dedicated to preserving and sharing the important history of Indigenous leaders like Chief Spotted Tail, who played pivotal roles in the signing of the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 and Edward Curtis wrote about in The North American Indian.


We are immensely grateful for Chief John Spotted Tail's graciousness and support as we continue our mission to illuminate significant narratives through the art of photography. This encounter serves as a testament to the enduring spirit of collaboration and mutual respect between our organization and Indigenous communities.


As a supporter of Indigenous heritage and cultural preservation, we are excited to share with you a recent event that embodies the spirit of reconciliation and the celebration of Native American legacy.



The Curtis Legacy Foundation was honored to share this photograph of Chief John Spotted Tail holding his great-great grandfather's headdress at the event "LEGACY RETURNED" - an extraordinary exhibition featuring the heirlooms of Chief Spotted Tail, which have been returned to his descendants after 140 years. This remarkable event took place on January 30, 2024, at the Sicangu Heritage Center located at Sinte Gleska University (Spotted Tail University), Mission, South Dakota.

The story behind these cherished heirlooms is one of friendship, respect, and the enduring bond between two families separated by generations. After serving as a cavalry officer in the Civil War, Major Cicero Newell (1840-1913) moved west, becoming an agent of the Rosebud Indian Agency in 1879.


Chief Spotted Tail's friendship with Major Newell transcended time and cultural barriers, leading to the exchange of deeply significant artifacts including his headdress, moccasins, leggings, and shirt. For over a century, Major Newell's family reverently safeguarded these sacred items, preserving their historical and cultural significance.

South Dakota State Historical Society Dr. David M. Grabitske and Sinte Gleska University Heritage Center, led by representative Keli Brings Three White Horses, embarked on a mission to assist Chief John Spotted Tail and his family, symbolizing the recognition of the importance of returning sacred items to their original communities.

The "Legacy Returned" is a symbol of reconciliation, fostering understanding and collaboration between different cultures. This has been an emotional journey for the Newell family, Chief John Spotted Tail, his wife, and Sinte Gleska University Heritage Center as they navigate the complexities of cultural heritage, identity, and the restoration of a connection severed by time and history.

The arrival of these artifacts, steeped in history and cultural significance, marked a momentous occasion for the South Dakota State Historical Society, Sinte Gleska University, and the public.

The Sinte Gleska University Heritage Center, nestled amid the serene landscapes, stood ready to provide an exhibit of these precious legacies. Plans were set in motion for a spectacular event—a grand viewing that would honor the sacred items and celebrate the cultural exchange between the Newell family, the Chief Spotted Tail family, and the Sicangu Lakota Nation.

On January 30th, the Sinte Gleska University Heritage Center buzzed with excitement. Representatives from the Newell family via letter form and Chief John Spotted Tail and Tamara gathered alongside university officials, students, and the wider public. The atmosphere emerging was charged with anticipation and respect for the rich heritage about to be revealed.

Chief John Spotted Tail offered words of gratitude, acknowledging the Newell family's gesture and emphasizing the importance of preserving cultural heritage. Chief John Spotted Tail's vision is that the exhibition of these artifacts becomes a symbol of unity, education, and understanding. The Sinte Gleska University Heritage Center had a one-day viewing of these artifacts, opening its doors to the public, the Sicangu Lakota Oyate inviting them to learn, appreciate, and celebrate the diverse tapestry of Sicangu Lakota history.

Chief John Spotted Tail at home pictured in front of his childhood home.
Chief John Spotted Tail pictured in front of his grandfather's house in which he spent much of his childhood. John slept in this wagon as a child. Photo by John Graybill


A Tale of 2 Families… 2 Diverse Cultures, 144 Years… and Going Home!

While Ulysses S. Grant was the President of the United States in 1876, Major Cicero Newell was appointed as the United States Indian Agent for the Brule Sioux (Dakotas), a tribe commonly known as Spotted Tail’s band. Major Newell was assigned to the tribal headquarters in Rosebud, South Dakota.

"In his book Indian Stories, Major Cicero Newell wrote the following: “As for the old Chief Spotted Tail, I shall always have the kindest remembrances of him. It was he who took so much interest in my learning the peculiar way of his people and their religion. When the time comes for me to pass on to the Happy Hunting Ground of the people the future life, I hope that one of the first persons I may meet there will be my dear old friend Spotted Tail. I want to show him how much I love him and how I respect him as a brother.

Major Newell also cherished and honored Spotted Tails personal items. He decreed that it be passed down to each first-born Newell son. For several years, my son, Eric James Newell, 6th generation Newell, and I have discussed the future of the Indian Suit. It was decided that it needed to go back to the descendants of Chief Spotted Tail. In 2020, the search began for the rightful owners."

Respectfully submitted by James LeRoy Newell

In the quiet town of La Center, Washington, the Newell family had long held the sacred Indian items, a collection of items once cherished and honored by Major Cicero Newell. Passed down through six generations, the time had come for James and his son, Eric James Newell, to decide about the future of these sacred items.

As the Newells discussed the significance of the Indian items, they felt a responsibility to return them to their rightful owners—the descendants of Chief Spotted Tail. The journey to find the rightful owners led them to Chief John Spotted Tail.

Newell sent a heartfelt request to Chief John and Tamara, inviting them to make the journey to Washington for a ceremonial return of the sacred items. The Spotted Tails, feeling the weight of responsibility and honor bestowed upon them, embarked on a journey that would reconnect them with a significant part of their heritage. Their path led them through landscapes both familiar and unfamiliar, symbolizing the ancestral journey of the sacred items back to their origins.

As Chief John and Tamara traveled, they reflected on the significance of the sacredness. The journey became a pilgrimage, not just through physical space, but through time and history. The couple immersed themselves in the stories of their ancestors, understanding the importance of reclaiming these sacred artifacts that held the essence of Chief Spotted Tail's legacy.

Upon reaching La Center, Washington, Chief John Spotted Tail and his wife, Tamara, were welcomed by the Newell family with open hearts. In a small ceremony on August 3, 2020, in La Center, Washington, the Newell family officially handed over the headdress, beaded moccasins, shirt, pants, and sacred items to Chief John Spotted Tail. The 5th generation direct descendant of Chief Spotted Tail expressed gratitude and embraced the return of the sacred items to their rightful home. It was a poignant moment of connection and reconciliation. The exchange of the sacred items became a symbolic gesture of healing, fostering understanding between two families separated by generations.

Chief John Spotted Tail and his wife, Tamara Stands and Looks Back - Spotted Tail.
Chief John Spotted Tail and his wife, Tamara Stands and Looks Back-Spotted Tail. Photo by John Graybill


Chief John Spotted Tail and his wife, Tamara Stands and Looks Back - Spotted Tail.
Chief John Spotted Tail and his wife, Tamara Stands and Looks Back - Spotted Tail. photo by John Graybill

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