The marble gaze of Chief Buffalo leads a growing Native American art collection

If staffers and tourists hurrying down the west staircase outside the House chamber were to look up, they’d be confronted by the steady gaze of a Native American chief. The same figure stares at the backs of the Senate’s workers and visitors turning out of the third-floor elevators near the upper chamber’s seated galleries.

The chief’s name is Beshekee, or Buffalo, and two busts of him adorn either end of the Capitol. According to the Office of the Senate Curator, Buffalo sat for the first bust during an 1855 visit to Washington to negotiate a treaty with President Franklin Pierce to sell Ojibwa land in Minnesota to the U.S. government for $1 million.

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At the same time as Buffalo’s visit, the Capitol building was being expanded, with the construction of two new wings containing the larger chambers that are still in use today. Montgomery Meigs, the superintendent of the expansion, took advantage of the chief’s visit. He asked Buffalo and another member of the delegation, Flat Mouth, to pose for clay models to be sent as guidance to Thomas Crawford, a Rome-based artist who was depicting Native Americans in the work he was hired to do for the east pediment of the new Senate portico.

Meigs liked the busts so much that he decided to order a marble version of Buffalo for the Senate wing from sculptor Francis Vincenti. Meigs wrote in his journal, “Vincenti is making a good likeness of a fine bust of Buffalo. I think I will have it put into marble and placed in a proper situation in the Capitol as a record of the Indian culture. 500 years hence it will be interesting.”

Meigs was not the only one impressed with the sculpture. 

“Buffalo himself was much delighted and loved to come sit for it,” said Associate Senate Curator Melinda Smith. “Buffalo was pleased with the process and the result.”

Three years later, in 1858, Joseph Lassalle, the Capitol bronze shop’s foreman, used Vincenti’s clay model to sculpt a bronze bust of Buffalo, which became the House’s version.

“One can speculate that the marble bust was so well-received that they decided to make another,” said House Curator Farar Elliott.

Buffalo’s feathered headdress, ornaments suspended from his slit ears and his piercing gaze testify to this chief’s importance and magisterial presence.

While art depicting Native Americans can be found all across the Capitol complex, these busts stand out because they capture the strong leader that was Buffalo.

“These busts are not of a generic Native American but an individual Native American,” Elliott said. “These are examples of specific people in the same way that we have a bust of [Revolutionary War French general the Marquis de] Lafayette, another foreign dignitary.”

“It’s executed from life and best reflects him as an individual,” Smith said.

In contrast to these busts of a powerful individual, Capitol art depicting generic Native Americans include a figure atop the old House clock, now on display in the Crypt, and the Rotunda painting “Landing of Columbus,” showing Native Americans peering out from behind trees at a resplendently clad Columbus.

More recently, art depicting specific Native Americans in a favorable light has been added, particularly in the Capitol Visitor Center. A 2000 sculpture there by Dave McGary shows Chief Washakie, a renowned warrior and accomplished peacemaker who negotiated for the preservation of more than 3 million acres in Wyoming, in elaborate splendor with a flowing feather headdress and spear in hand.

A 2005 statue by Benjamin Victor, also in the Capitol Visitor Center, shows Sarah Winnemucca, a spokeswoman and translator for the Nevadan Paiute tribe, holding a book. Winnemucca was also known for being the first Native American woman to write a book.

Additionally, members of Congress have brought Native American art from their home states to decorate their offices. The office of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was particularly well-known for the large South Dakotan headdress on the wall.

Art: Two busts of Beshekee

Location: The Capitol’s second story, outside the House floor; the Capitol’s third floor, by the Senate visitors’ galleries.