land disputes

Bad News About Kevin Costner’s Buffalo Sculpture

Photo: Gabriel Maseda/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Amid Kevin Costner’s high-profile divorce, you may have missed the more enduring legal battle the actor has been going through — over a bronze buffalo sculpture. For decades, Costner has been embroiled in multiple lawsuits with artist Peggy Detmers over a 17-piece life-size sculpture he first commissioned from her in the early 1990s. The drama, which involves a failed luxury casino, the grammatical importance of the conjunction or, and the Lakota people, finally entered a new phase last week.

To catch you up — in 1994, Costner, who had just starred as Lieutenant Dunbar in Dances With Wolves, decided that he wanted to build a luxury casino resort in South Dakota called the Dunbar. Before the resort even began construction, Costner commissioned an enormous outdoor sculpture — Lakota Bison Jump — from Detmers featuring three Lakota people on horseback chasing 14 buffalo. The deal was that Costner would pay Detmers $300,000 (a discount), with the expectation that Detmers would get royalties from reproductions that would be sold at the resort. (Unsurprisingly, the actual Lakota people were displeased by this plan, which involved a land swap of their territory between the government and Costner.)

Photo: Mauro Toccacel/Alamy Stock Photo

Years went by, and the Dunbar failed to materialize. Detmers read the writing on the wall and stopped working on the sculpture in 2000. But Costner had to have his buffalo, so he entered in another contract with Detmers, paying her an additional $60,000 and agreeing that, “although I do not anticipate this will ever arise, if the Dunbar is not built within ten years or the sculptures are not agreeably displayed elsewhere,” he would sell the art and split the profits with Detmers. Unfortunately for Costner, this did arise — by 2002, still with no resort in sight, the actor decided that the natural next step was to build a tourist attraction on the land called Ta’Tanka: Story of the Bison. The spot features a gift shop, memorabilia from Dances With Wolves, and, most important, Detmers’s sculpture. (One TripAdvisor review of the site: “You pay $12 per person to watch a 20-year-old video which basically sums up that Costner wanted to build a hotel and turned it into a place for sculptures instead.”)

As Ta’Tanka is notably not the high-end luxury resort where Costner promised to display the sculpture, Detmers sued Costner in 2008, trying to force him to sell. As Detmers told The Wall Street Journal at the time: “We didn’t know it was going to be the Never Done Bar.” The court, however, sided with Costner, concluding that displaying the sculpture at Ta’Tanka fulfilled the agreement, since it was being “agreeably displaced elsewhere.” (This presents a mind-bending paradox: whether a tourist trap located on the same land of an unbuilt luxury resort is, indeed, “elsewhere.”) And so everything was settled and tourists continued to visit, writing on TripAdvisor that the sculpture is “neat but not worth $9 to see.”

But peace in Ta’Tanka (like his marriage) would not last. In 2021, Costner listed the Ta’Tanka land for sale, noting that the sculpture itself was not being sold but would instead be “relocated by the seller.” So Detmers sued again, claiming that Costner was violating the terms of their agreement. The circuit court sided at first with Costner, but Detmers appealed, and the case was heard by the South Dakota Supreme Court. Last week, the court finally sided with Detmers, arguing that the lower court had erred in its grammatical reading of the word or. The result of ironing out the grammar is that if Costner wants to sell Ta’Tanka, he also has to sell the sculpture, “unless the parties agree to another display location.” So now, the case will proceed to trial under the lower court, which means it will be the Costner court case to follow in the coming months. As one tourist recently won over by Ta’Tanka summarized the situation: “The status of the statues is in litigation, so the future is uncertain. If you can squeeze a visit into your current or upcoming vacation, I say do it.”

Bad News About Kevin Costner’s Buffalo Sculpture