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Sacred buffalo art damaged

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. - The scrimshawed skeleton of a buffalo referred to as the sacred buffalo was damaged by a visitor while on display at the Fairbanks Museum.

An unknown visitor threw an antique chair from a balcony onto the buffalo skeleton, damaging parts of it to the point it may not be repairable, artist James Durham said.

Durham, from Hot Springs, S.D., said he was sick over the incident, but it was not altogether unexpected. He carved the seven sacred rites of the Lakota Nation into the skeleton of the buffalo and labeled it Sacred Buffalo: The Lakota Way for a New Beginning. He said the word sacred in the label angered Christian fundamentalists, and some Lakota and American Indian people do not support the project either.

"Some people hate this piece of art. Some Christian groups object to the word sacred. They say the word belongs only to Jesus and the bible," Durham said.

He said when he heard the man who threw the chair spoke with a southern accent he was suspicious and immediately thought about the Christian movement.

"I told (the Fairbanks museum curators) they couldn't keep the balcony open. When they didn't (close it), I moved the old oak chairs to the back and they moved them back," Durham said.

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The vandal is said to be white, 5 feet 10 inches tall, with extensive tattoos on his arms and spoke with a southern accent, police reports said.

"I got in a shoving match with a preacher. I've had members of the southern Student Christian Coalition telling me to repent. They steal signs that would lead people to the exhibit. I've been on the road five years and I have never people like that before," Durham said.

The skeleton has been moved to a studio where Durham and assistants will evaluate the damage. Whether the skeleton can be fully repaired remains to be seen, Durham said. "Seven bones were knocked off. Some of the bones were shattered. We have bags and bags of bones.

"We are hopeful it can be repaired. If it can't be repaired, we will use the bone from another buffalo, then give it to the Journey Museum," he said. The Journey is a museum in Rapid City, S.D.

Durham said the buffalo skeleton will be taken to South Dakota where it can be prayed over by Steve Dubray. He said he would not consider taking the Sacred Buffalo to the next stop on the tour unless the prayer ceremony took place. The Sacred Buffalo is scheduled to be in Louisiana toward the end of September.

Durham, with Lakota artists and Vietnam veterans spent more than 17,000 hours carving more than 3,000 scenes of the history of the Lakota and the seven sacred rites into the bones of the buffalo skeleton. On exhibit the skeleton rests on a slowly moving turntable to allow people to view the entire piece.

"It was very exciting for us to host this exhibit. It's really a tragic thing that's happened," said Fairbanks Museum Executive Director Charles Browne.