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Family heirloom represents the culture

CRAZY HORSE, S.D. ? A dress, not just any dress, but a buckskin, beaded dress with French francs sewn on the bottom, weighing more than 50 pounds ? this is the cultural symbol of a family.

As a small child, the youngest of 11 children, Marcella Dupuis began to craft a dress that she would wear as an adult for ceremonies, her wedding, her husband's funeral, other special occasions and that 56 of her descendants would also wear. She completed the dress in 1880.

The dress is now secured in a glass case at the Indian Museum of North America at Crazy Horse Memorial.

Marcella, or Unci (grandmother in Lakota) as she was called by many of her grandchildren was honored during a memorial ceremony at the location where the dress and many of her possessions will reside for what some family members say will be forever.

The family into which she was born became very wealthy, family members say. Then she married a man who came from a well-known Illinois family and was to become a successful rancher and politician.

Women members of the family, 56 in all, have worn the dress for various occasions, such as weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. The family has photos of all who've worn the dress.

The dress, beautiful in its own right as a work of art, carries the message of a now large family of Dupuis, Rousseaus and Carlins that celebrated their grandmother's life with a ceremony at the site where her belongings will remain under glass.

The family's journey was well known and revered by American Indian and non-Indian alike. (Its name is also spelled Dupris or Dupree.) Unci's father, Frederick Dupuis, a French-Canadian, came to Lakota country as a fur trader in 1836, and worked for the American Fur Company. He married Good Elk Woman, later to be called Mary Ann Dupuis, and they became wealthy ranchers.

Dupuis was inducted posthumously into the South Dakota Hall of Fame for his work in helping to save the buffalo. A small community in central South Dakota, Dupree on the border of the Cheyenne River Reservation, is named for him.

Dupuis was born in 1818 and moved to the region in 1836. When he arrived in what is now South Dakota, buffalo were a major food, clothing and sheltering source for the Lakota people. By 1883 Dupuis knew the buffalo were being slaughtered for sport and as a means to control the hostile bands of the Lakota nation. The sacred animal of the Lakota people was headed for extinction.

He sent three of his sons out onto the prairie to round up a few buffalo calves. Some calves died, but more lived, and by time of Dupuis' death in 1898 the family had nurtured nine healthy buffalo.

In 1918 the herd had grown to 500. Most were sold to James "Scotty" Philip. From Philip, some buffalo were purchased by the state of South Dakota while others went in various directions. South Dakota now boasts the largest state-owned buffalo herd in the nation.

Historians and buffalo experts alike say that because of Dupuis' concern the American Bison, as the buffalo are scientifically known, was saved from extinction.

The family that gathered for the memorial for Marcella continued their heritage through family stories now preserved in the museum.

The family members who knew Marcella said they remembered her as a gentle, caring woman who cherished and nurtured her children and grandchildren.

"I can see Unci's smile in some of the children here today," said Neil Rousseau, her grandson.

"Unci never said much to us, but would walk by you and mess your hair. She wore dark clothes and I was a little scared. She was very loving." Marcella died in 1951.

Marcella married D.F. "Doug" Carlin, the son of the Illinois Territorial Governor in 1887 at Cherry Creek on the Cheyenne River Reservation. A local rancher was quoted in a local paper later in his life as saying the elaborate wedding celebration lasted for days.

Carlin came to the territory as a member of the military quartermaster corps assigned to the Cheyenne River Agency. He later became a South Dakota state senator and many of his personal items are located in the museum at the state capitol.

The last time Marcella wore the dress was during a parade in New Mexico. The dress was then placed in a chest with other of her belongings where it was stored under beds and in closets until family members finally decided that someone should take charge of the heirlooms.

Rousseau became caretaker of the chest and its contents. For the past 22 years he opened it occasionally during family gatherings for the children, "so they would know their cultural heritage", he said.

Rousseau continually researched locations where the dress would receive proper care and display so that others could understand some of the family history and Lakota culture.

"There is a spiritual feeling coming out in the younger generation. We are proud of our family culture, on both sides, Indian and non-Indian, we are just family. The dress and Unci's things will be at this museum forever for the family to see," Rousseau said.

Rousseau said that the family has been offered a substantial amount of money for the dress, but that it was not for sale. Other items in the chest entrusted to Rousseau included a flour sack, one baby moccasin, awls, sewing material, a beaded waist sash and sinew. All will be on display at the museum.

The items are on loan to the museum for 25 years. Then three members of the family who have been specially selected will decide whether to keep the items at the Museum or to remove them to another location. Rousseau said the items would most likely stay with the museum.

An honoring song performed at the ceremony repeated words of the elders that told how difficult it was to be a Lakota. The song says how hard it is to hold on to the culture today.

Rousseau's mother, Grace Carlin Rousseau, was photographed while wearing the dress and a family artist painted a portrait of her.

"Marcella lived through persecution. Persecution about religion from the government and other tribal members, she was not of the right religion and was persecuted by her own people," said Dee Schumacher, granddaughter from Rapid City, S.D. She wore the dress on her 50th wedding anniversary

"Marcella is blessed today. From where she is she sees through to the younger generations," Schumacher said.