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How the West was Spun - Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show

By Stephen G. Hyslop 
Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 05, 2008 
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But Black Elk's memories of the show itself were more ambivalent. "I liked the part of the show we made," he said, "but not the part the Wasichus [whites] made." Like other Sioux hired by Buffalo Bill, he enjoyed commemorating their proud old days as mounted warriors but seemingly recognized that their role was defined and diminished by what whites made of it. Describing the command performance of Buffalo Bill's Wild West for Queen Victoria, he recalled that she spoke to Indian performers after they danced and sang for her and told them something to this effect: "All over the world I have seen all kinds of people; but to-day I have seen the best-looking people I know. If you belonged to me, I would not let them take you around in a show like this." Whether or not she spoke such words, Black Elk evidently felt that "a show like this" did not do his people great honor.

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The willingness of proud warriors who once resisted American authority to join Cody's show demonstrated that they were capable of adapting to the modern world. Yet the conventions of the Wild West relegated them to the past, a vanishing world of tepees, war bonnets and scalp dances that was the only Indian culture many whites recognized. One chief who toured with Cody, Iron Tail, was said to be a model for the Indian Head nickel, with a bonneted warrior on one side and a buffalo on the other—icons that became cherished as distinctively American only when the way of life they represented was on the verge of extinction.

Sitting Bull, whose appearance in the show prompted many other Sioux to join the traveling troupe, epitomized the wide gulf between the myth perpetuated by Buffalo Bill's Wild West and the harsh reality Indians faced with the closing of the frontier. By all accounts he got on well with Cody. But he hated the hustle and bustle of Eastern cities and only stayed with the show for four months. In the years that followed, government officials grew concerned about the emergence of the Ghost Dance, a messianic religious movement on the reservations that promised Indians who joined in the ritualistic dance eternal life in a bountiful world of their own, where they would be reunited with their lost loved ones and ancestors. Reports in late 1889 that Sioux who joined this movement were wearing "ghost shirts," which they believed would protect them from bullets, increased fears among authorities that the movement would turn violent. When Sitting Bull began encouraging the Ghost Dancers, Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles called upon Buffalo Bill to find him and bring him in, hoping that the chief would yield peacefully to a man he knew and trusted.

Cody headed west to Bismarck, N.D., in December 1890 and reportedly filled two wagons with gifts before setting off in his showman's outfit to track down Sitting Bull on the Standing Rock Reservation. The escapade is clouded in legend and it remains unclear whether or not Cody was serious about trying to arrest Sitting Bull. In any case he got waylaid by two scouts working for the Indian agent James McLaughlin, who wanted credit for corralling Sitting Bull himself. This was no longer Cody's show, and it would play out as a reminder of the grim realities that underlay his rousing performances.

On December 15, McLaughlin sent Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull. A struggle ensued, and shots were fired. Sitting Bull was killed instantly. His son, six of his supporters and six policemen also died. Two weeks later, fighting erupted at nearby Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation between a band of Sioux caught up in the Ghost Dance movement and troops of Custer's old regiment, the 7th Cavalry, after soldiers grappled with a deaf young Indian who refused to hand over his gun. When the shooting stopped, 25 soldiers and about 150 Sioux, many of them women and children, lay dead. In the words of Charles Eastman, a mixed-blood Sioux physician who searched among the victims for survivors, Wounded Knee exposed the lurking "savagery of civilization."

The massacre marked the tragic end of the real Indian wars.

Also see "The Original Reality Show – Buffalo Bill's Extravaganza"


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