Friday, October 19, 2012

Contemporary Images of the Indians in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

Heather Cox Richardson

I have recently tumbled over two youtube videos that show provocative images of the Indian performers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. These videos compile images from the collections of the Library of Congress.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show is well
known. It was William F. Cody’s venture to cash in on the rodeos that were popular across the West. He launched the Wild West Show in 1883, promising to bring the “real” West to customers back east. He showed cowboys and stagecoach robberies and battles between soldiers and Indians, promising to eastern audiences that they were seeing the reality of life in the late nineteenth-century American West.

Historians have torn Buffalo Bill’s claim to shreds, pointing out how carefully Cody crafted the performances to illustrate his own beliefs about the meaning of America and the West. But, “true” or not, the show was a roaring success. In 1887, Cody boasted: “I kick worse than any quartermaster’s mule ever kicked if I don’t clear a thousand dollars a day.” That year, he took the show to England to perform for Queen Victoria.

The Wild West Show was popular enough that Thomas Edison expended some of his early film to record pieces of it. The first video shows images from his experiment spliced together. It reveals the performers parading through a
packed street as they entered a town. Indians and cavalrymen move in a column amid a churning throng of boys and men. It’s a male crowd; only one girl is immediately obvious, and she seems notably uncomfortable in the setting. Many modern Americans forget that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Indians were not uncommon sights in urban America. This chaotic street scene (complete with boys darting right in front of a horse, which shies away) is an eye-opener.

The rest of the clips on the video show Annie Oakley, a cowboy riding a bronco, and two scenes of Indian dances. The dances are good illustrations that Cody’s “real” West was carefully crafted to show what eastern audiences wanted to see. The filmed dances say far more about racist audiences than Indian cultural practices.

Those dancing scenes contrast powerfully with the still images on this second video. These are photographs taken in the late nineteenth century by artist Gertrude Kasebier. Her goal was to take images of the Lakota in the Wild West Show that would reveal them as individuals. She preferred to capture her subjects at rest, without the accouterments of their stage personas. Her images are quite a contrast to those in the Edison film.

No comments: