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The Buechel and Thorburn Collections

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This exhibition features photographs from the Eugene Buechel Photography Collection and objects from the Rev. and Mrs. Frank Thorburn Tribal Arts Collection. Both collections are unique in their immediacy: Buechel’s photographs depict primarily one-on-one interactions with his sitters, people that he knew; the Thorburn Collection consists primarily of objects that were gifted directly to the couple by the artists.

During the 19th century, most American Indians were forcibly removed from their homelands, facing cultural genocide and unspeakable violence. While living on reservation lands, American Indians endured oppressive assimilation tactics that punished practice of Native cultures and customs. American Indian languages, religious activities, arts, regalia, hairstyles and more, were repressed, while white culture and customs, such as clothing, religion, language and western education, were enforced.

Most of the works on display in this exhibition date between the 1920s to 1940s, when assimilation efforts had long been in effect. In Buechel’s photographs, there is a stark lack of overtly Native cultural items, revealing the harsh impact of decades of assimilation efforts. This is particularly apparent as the black and white photographs are juxtaposed with the colorful, exquisitely hand-crafted pieces in the Thorburn Collection. Yet, the pieces in the Thorburn Collection serve as statements of the persistence of Native traditions and the success of American Indians in protecting their cultures and customs despite overwhelming adversity.

Buechel Collection

Eugene Buechel (b. 1874, Germany) studied in Germany and the Netherlands, and entered the Jesuit Order in 1897. He came to the United States in 1900 and taught at St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota 1902 - 1904. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1906 and returned to South Dakota the following year, where he served the Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation and at St. Francis Mission until his death in 1954.

Wambli Sapa or Black Eagle, as Father Buechel was named by the Lakota people, learned the Lakota language, translated many church texts into Lakota, and wrote a Lakota grammar. His file of almost 30,000 Lakota words with translations was published in 1970 as a Lakota-English dictionary. Buechel also developed one of the finest collections of Lakota art, which is housed in the Buechel Memorial Lakota Museum at St. Francis.

As an avid photographer, he left over 2,300 negatives and prints of Rosebud and Pine Ridge citizens to the St. Francis Indian Mission. The collection represents one of the most important historical and sociological records in the state. The images on exhibit are from this grouping. They were given to the South Dakota Art Museum in 1984 by St. Francis Mission in memory of Les Helgeland, former editor of the Yankton Press and Dakotan, friend of the Mission and a trustee of the South Dakota Art Museum.

Learn more about Eugene Buechel

Thorburn Collection

Frank Thorburn was born in 1902 in Brooklyn, New York, was raised in California, and graduated from Sacramento High School in 1921.  He attended college at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and seminary at General Theological Seminary in New York City. Thorburn was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1931 at St. Elizabeth Church in Wakpala on the Standing Rock Reservation.  He married Abigail Case at that same church in 1932. Abigail was born in 1910 in New York City and graduated from high school in Alexandria Bay, New York. She attended Courtland Normal School, receiving her teaching certificate. She taught elementary school in New York, before marrying Frank Thorburn.

After their marriage, the Thorburns moved from Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where they provided religious instruction in sixteen day-schools until 1952. The Thorburns moved to Brookings in 1953, where Frank served as rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Abigail returned to Courtland Normal School in the 1960s to study Library Science and worked at the Brookings Middle School.  She also volunteered here at the South Dakota Art Museum. Thorburn passed away in 1994 and Abigail passed away in 2005. 

Most of the Thorburn collection consists of gifts to them during their over 20 years serving on the reservations, while others were purchased from trading posts. The collection was given to the South Dakota Art Museum in 1985 - 1986.

Learn more about the Thorburn Collection


Operational support for the South Dakota Art Museum is provided by South Dakota State University and the South Dakota Arts Council.