SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- The remains of a man who died young while touring the world with Buffalo Bill were hidden for more than a century in an unmarked grave some 1,700 miles from his South Dakota Indian reservation.
Now Albert Afraid of Hawk is returning home. He'll be reburied today in accordance with Lakota tradition, thanks largely to a curious and persistent Connecticut history buff.
Bob Young uncovered records of the Oglala Sioux member's death at a Connecticut hospital after a bout with food poisoning from eating bad corn. A few years ago, Young pieced the details together and reached out to Afraid of Hawk's family members.
"It's something that should have happened a long time ago, but it didn't," said Marlis Afraid of Hawk, 54, whose father, Daniel Afraid of Hawk, is Albert's last living nephew. "Nobody even questioned where he is buried or where this person is. It was left at that."
Afraid of Hawk, born in 1879, joined Buffalo Bill's show with a childhood friend from the Oglala Sioux tribe in 1898, two years before he died at age 20.
He traveled with the world-famous troupe, known as the Congress of Rough Riders of the World, as part of a rotating cast that helped educate and entertain thousands eager to hear firsthand accounts of life on the unruly terrain. He apparently sent money back to family members living on the Pine Ridge reservation.
Last month, Marlis Afraid of Hawk, Daniel Afraid of Hawk and other relatives traveled to Connecticut from their homes on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota to witness the disinterment of Albert's remains.
Young, president of a museum in Danbury, Conn., had identified the location of Afraid of Hawk's grave at a cemetery there.
"At the start it was just another research project, but each piece I came up with got me more interested," said Young, who was working at the cemetery at the time.
Nicholas Bellantoni, the state archeologist for Connecticut, knew the coffin would have disintegrated, and he prepared the family for the possibility that the acidic Connecticut soil had left little behind.
Bellantoni and a team of excavators gently dug a couple of feet into the ground with a backhoe. At about 4 1/2 feet, they began getting hits with a metal detector, signaling they were getting closer to nails that had been in the coffin.
Then, once a piece of soil dislodged, bone began to poke out. It was Albert's skull.
"I knew right there that Albert had been preserved, at least in part, and that they would be able to bring Albert home," Bellantoni said.
It was a breakthrough for family members, who had been searching for decades. In the 1970s they even traveled to Washington, D.C., to learn more about Afraid of Hawk's death, returning with a picture but little information.
The team in Connecticut also recovered hair fibers, copper beads from an earring, a copper ring and six handles from Albert's coffin. Bellantoni said he was surprised at how ornate the handles were.
Now those remains are in South Dakota, where a wake and funeral will be held to allow Afraid of Hawk to enter the spirit world.