Sculptor’s long-running lawsuit against Kevin Costner can resume, judges rule

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Sculptor Peggy Detmers’s decades-long dispute with Kevin Costner—the star of Dances with Wolves, Waterworld and the series Yellowstone—over a massive statue of a bison hunt the actor commissioned for a failed resort project, will resume after a four-judge panel in South Dakota Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit this week, Courthouse News reports.

The lawsuit, which originated in 2008 but pertains to a sculpture commission that dates back to 1994, revolves around the 17-piece sculptural ensemble Lakota Bison Jump. Costner commissioned Detmers to create the work—which depicts three Lakota warriors hunting a herd of bison, all rendered at 150% life size—for a luxury resort he was planning to build near Deadwood, North Dakota. In addition to a preliminary fee of $300,000, Detmers, a former US Forest Service biologist, was promised royalties from sales of reproductions at the resort’s gift shop.

By 2000, amid opposition from the Lakota People, Costner’s resort project stalled and Detmers ceased work on the sculpture. Then, the actor and sculptor reached a new agreement: Costner would pay Detmers an additional $60,000 and, if the resort were not built in another ten years and the sculpture were “not agreeably displayed elsewhere”, he would sell it, and they would split the proceeds evenly. Costner would also retain copyright to the work until its sale, after which it would revert to Detmers.

In 2002, Costner gave up on the resort scheme and instead built a tourist attraction on some of the same land. The centrepiece of the complex, dubbed Ta’Tanka: Story of the Bison, is Detmers’s sculpture; it also includes a visitor centre, museum and gift shop offering local and Native American goods. Admission to Ta’Tanka costs $12 for adults and $6 for children. Its website claims that Lakota Bison Jump is the third-largest bronze sculpture in the world.

A partial view of Lakota Bison Jump, by Peggy Detmers, at Ta’Tanka: Story of the Bison in Deadwood, South Dakota Photo by Strange Biology, via Flickr

In 2008, seemingly unconvinced that showing her sculpture at Ta’Tanka constituted having it “agreeably displayed elsewhere”, Detmers sued Costner, seeking a court order requiring him to sell the sculpture. Following a trial, the circuit court sided with Costner, a decision that Detmers appealed to South Dakota’s Supreme Court, which in 2012 ruled in Costner’s favour, seemingly bringing the legal saga over Lakota Bison Jump to a close.

But then, in 2021, Costner listed the Ta’Tanka property for sale, specifying that Detmers’s sculpture was not for sale and would be relocated by the seller. In November of that year, Detmers filed a new lawsuit, alleging that Costner had agreed to “permanently” display her sculpture at Ta’Tanka and seeking a court order for him to sell the sculpture if he sold the property. The circuit court once again sided with Costner, a decision Detmers appealed, leading to the 3 August decision in the sculptor’s favour by the panel of judges in South Dakota Supreme Court.

The judges’ decision hinges largely on the grammar of the contract between Detmers and Costner, and their finding that the “the circuit court erroneously read” it to mean that the sculpture only needed to be “agreeably displayed elsewhere” for ten years. The case is now remanded back to Lawrence County’s circuit court, where it may go to trial, the South Dakota Searchlight reported.

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