Road Journals Blog—A Shoshone elder and one of the most respected and collected contemporary bead workers in the West, Laine Thom is unassuming . . . at least until he gets going about his charges at the Colter Bay Indian Arts Museum. As a ranger-naturalist there, Thom is responsible for the museum’s 1,500-piece collection, about 800 of which are on display at any time.
Colter Bay might be known for its cabins and marina, but the Indian Arts Museum next to the visitor center is the area’s most unexpected find. After all, it’s not like Indians ever permanently lived in this area.
Walking around the collection with Thom, you get the history of the museum and also specifics—told in a low voice with the slightest of accents where words run together yet sentences slow down—that bring the woven blankets, beadwork, moccasins, pouches, sashes, and jewelry to life.
The entire collection—the majority of which dates from the Reservation Period, from1875 through the early 1900s—was a gift to the park from Laurance Rockefeller, who purchased it from David T. Vernon, an Evanston, Ill. native whose childhood obsession with arrowheads grew into an adult passion for all things Native American. The museum, almost entirely constituted of Vernon’s collection, opened in GTNP in 1972. Thom arrived in 1980.
Although far from elder status in terms of actual years on earth (he’s only 58), Thom was made one several years ago by the Shoshone tribe, because, he said, “I was told that I know more about the old ways than many of the old people.”
Part Shoshone, Goshiute and Paiute, Thom, unlike most of his peers, buried himself in traditional Indian ways as he was growing up. He was six before his friends heard him speak English rather than Shoshone (and then only at school).
Thom first came to the museum as a featured guest artist. (His own traditional beadwork can be found in collections and museums around the country.) He has been back every summer since, splitting the rest of the time between locations around the West. Other guest artists arrive, as well; every summer brings about a dozen, some new, others returning (though none for as long as Thom). They work in a variety of traditional and contemporary Native American arts and designs; some of their work ends up in the museum gift shop; other pieces are sent to galleries across the country.
Ranger-naturalists, including Thom, lead free tours of the Indian Arts Museum, once each in the morning and afternoon. Once each week a teepee is reconstructed on the grounds. The museum is open daily from 8-5 and admission is free. For further information, contact the Colter Bay Visitor Center (May – October only) at 739-3594.
Has a tour guide or docent left as much of an impression on you as the place he or she was showing? Tell us about it.
Dina Mishev's article, "An Insider's Guide to Grand Teton National Park," can be found in VIA's 2011 spring edition  in the Mountain West region, comprising Montana, Wyoming and Alaska.
This blog post was first published in January 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.