One of the most pleasant surprises for many visitors of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is the Cook Collection. Just from the name of the monument one would expect to learn about fossils, but there is a collection of Native American artifacts on display in the Visitor Center that is truly unique.
When James Cook first arrived in this area, he chanced to meet Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. They were able to communicate with sign language and over the years James learned some of the spoken language as well. The chance encounter led to a lifelong friendship which resulted in visits to Cook's ranch by Red Cloud and his people.
The Sioux traveled 150 miles by horse and wagon from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for these visits to Cook's Agate Springs Ranch on the Niobrara River ranch in Nebraska. They needed a pass to leave the reservation and needed the pass to return to it. Once they had settled into their camp they worked for James Cook, hunted, and danced under the trees near the ranch house. This was more than a "visit", they seemed to melt back to a time when their lives were spent hunting, following game, harvesting native plants, and trading with other people.
During these visits, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne gave gifts to James Cook and his family and received beef and hides in return. Some of the gifts were made especially for the Cooks including buckskin suits and gloves. Other items were very special, such as a shirt which had belonged to Red Cloud, three generations of pipebags (one belonging to Red Cloud, his father and his son), and one of Crazy Horse's whetstones.
James Cook and his descendants concluded that these gifts should remain in the immediate area of the ranch. When the National Park Service constructed the current visitor center in the early 1990s, it designated two rooms for the display of the James H. Cook Collection. One room serves as an introduction to the ranch and the culture of the Lakota Sioux while the second room features many of the most important pieces. Historic photos accompany these items to further tell the story of the friendship and gift-giving. The rooms are light and climate-controlled for the maximum protection of the artifacts.
Did You Know?
The windmills seen in the area are still used to pump water into stock tanks for cattle to drink. Some of these wells are 250 to 300 feet deep and provide a good source of water as long as the wind blows.