By Sam Levin
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By Dennis Brown
Another photo from the '50s shows Thomas standing in front of the counter of the Mohonk Lodge Trading Post in Clinton, Oklahoma, flanked by its two owners, Napoleon Bonaparte Moore and Nellie Stevens. He looks so much at home, an impartial observer might think he owned the place, too.
Founded in 1895 by members of the Dutch Reformed Church who had migrated east from upstate New York (hence the name Mohonk, later changed to Mohawk), the trading post was one of the first places in the country where Plains Indians, mostly Arapaho, Cheyenne and Creek, could sell their traditional leather- and beadwork to visitors. Thomas lived in the lodge's beading house and bought most of the items in his collection there.
When he came back to St. Louis in the winters, he would take his treasures around to local schools and let the kids try the headdresses on. He taught the dances to Boy Scouts, and they performed around the St. Louis area. Kevin Airis, who was born in 1955, remembers attending these powwows with his parents. At the time, he was so small, he could fit in the papoose carrier.
The dancers wore Thomas' beaded cummerbunds, moccasins, cuffs and breechclouts. But only Thomas was allowed to wear the headdresses and the rose-patterned leather vest.
Jewel Airis shared her father-in-law's love of Native American culture. She was a member of his dance troupe and performed in a beaded canvas dress he'd brought her from Oklahoma. She'd always been self-conscious about her background, Kevin says. "She was adopted. She never knew her father. Grandpa accepted her. He was like a father to her. They were inseparable."
When Thomas died, Jewel appointed herself guardian of his artifacts. "She saved everything," says Kevin. "She filled the basement and garage with boxes." All those things had to be left behind when Jewel went to live with Kevin and Theresa after her stroke; there wasn't enough room at their house to store it all.
A few weeks after Jewel died, Doug King, the science center director, finally visited the Airises in Hillsboro and repeated what James Houser had told Melinda Frillman: that the science center had already returned the missing 36 items.
"He came here and told Kevin his mom was a liar," says Theresa. "After she died, he finally came. He asked what it would take to make this go away. We laughed and said, 'We want our stuff back.'"
"I think he came down here to see what kind of house I lived in," Kevin adds, "to see what he was dealing with."
On March 7, Kevin Airis hand delivered a letter to King at the science center demanding the return of his grandfather's collection within 48 hours. "I thought the letter would make Doug King take me seriously," he says. King assured the Airises that he had contacted the FBI and was launching an investigation into the missing items.
"At one point," Kevin adds, "Doug King said he would cut a check. Then he went on vacation, and we never heard from him."
Two weeks later, after Frillman conducted an extended search through the museum's entire Native American and ethnographic collections, the science center finally found Thomas' catlinite pipe. Frillman said it had been misfiled by a volunteer and sent a museum staffer to return it to Kevin.
The rest of the items — the beaded vests, the headdresses, the peyote fans — remained missing.
The FBI uncovered no evidence that anyone had stolen Thomas Airis' things or tried to sell them. As far as King and his staff were concerned Houser had returned 36 items to Jewel in 1974, even if there was no supporting paperwork. Kevin had just taken back the remaining eleven. The case was closed.
The Airises, naturally, did not agree. "Why would they keep the pistol, two headdresses and hair roaches and not the beaded items, which have much more cultural and heritage value?" Kevin asks.
He hired Gwen Yeaman, an accredited appraiser from Zionsville, Indiana, to examine photos of the missing objects and calculate their replacement value. Yeaman has taught courses on Native American culture and religion at Butler University, served as a consultant for PBS and the History Channel, and done considerable beadwork herself.
Yeaman's estimation of the value of the objects was, of course, hypothetical, but she based her calculations on comparable pieces that had been sold at auction. In the case of Thomas' beaded vest, she determined that the rose design was complex enough that each bead needed to be sewn on individually, which, judging from her own experience, would probably require 300 hours of work. The leather of the vest itself, in order to support so much beading, would have to have been brain-tanned, a process far more disgusting and time-consuming than chemical tanning. Leather made this way is, consequently, rarer and more expensive.
Taking into account that the Mohonk Lodge, the likely source of the vest, had a reputation for selling museum-quality work and considering the auction prices of other vests she considered of lower quality, Yeaman appraised the vest at $8,000.
In the end, Yeaman estimated that the total value of the missing objects, except for the ones made of eagle feathers, was $143,850. The eagle-feathered items were, of course, irreplaceable, but Yeaman believed the four peyote fans were worth $1 million and the two headdresses $1.2 million apiece. (A similar floor-length headdress that had once been worn by Geronimo in a Wild West show had recently sold for that price.)
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