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  • Foe, Friend, or CriticNative Performers with Buff alo Bill’s Wild West Show and Discourses of Conquest and Friendship in Newspaper Reports
  • Linda Scarangella McNenly (bio)

Wild West shows, a form of spectacular exhibition that presented life on the frontier, thrived from the 1880s to the early 1900s. Typically a two-to three-hour extravaganza, a Wild West show performance included displays of horsemanship and marksmanship, western vignettes that depicted frontier life and the heroic deeds of cowboys and settlers, Indian-themed vignettes that presented their culture and customs (e.g., setting up a village and dancing), and the reenactment of famous battles, such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or, at the very least, a generic Indian attack on a settler’s cabin or an immigrant wagon train. This Wild West show formula remained basically the same through the decades; however, battle reenactments were added and removed based on popularity and current events. The success of these shows was due in part to claims of authenticity. Wild West shows purportedly presented actual events from real life on the frontier reenacted by genuine cowboys and Indians who were “on the scene.”1

It is not difficult to imagine how this form of spectacular exhibition became popular. In fact, according to Don Russell’s The Wild West, over one hundred Wild West shows were in existence from 1883 into the 1930s. Many were small-time operations of short duration, but a few persisted through the decades. The most well-known and perhaps most successful show was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.2 Frontiersman, buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider, and army scout William F. “Baffalo Bill” Cody toured North America and Europe with his Wild West show from 1884 to 1913. An extensive literature exists on Baffalo Bill’s Wild West show specifically, examining Cody’s life, his show, the frontier myth, and the making and performance of American nationalism and identity.3 [End Page 143] This article departs from a focus on show entrepreneurs and the performances themselves to explore Native performers’ experiences and perceptions within the context of traveling with and performing for Baffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

Wild West shows highlighted frontier (i.e., white settler) life and included a variety of “cowboy” acts, but the stars of the show were the “Indians,” who drew in the crowds in the hundreds of thousands. Wild West shows consistently produced both romantic and stereotypical representations of Native peoples as exotic noble savages, although, as Paul Reddin shows in his book, Wild West Shows, people’s perception of “Plains Indians” changed through time. A considerable amount of scholarship, in particular the excellent historical studies by Vine Deloria Jr., Joy S. Kasson, Sam A. Maddra, L. G. Moses, and Louis S. Warren, has focused on deconstructing the Wild West show performances and critiquing the representation of Native peoples in these shows.4 However, the performances themselves were not the only sites of representation. The visual and print media, including newspaper reports, advertisements, photographs, postcards, show programs, and posters, also produced and perpetuated images of a noble savage or “savage Indian.” The visual and print media, which included Native performers’ comments, provides a site for the examination of representations and discourses of Native peoples and how Native performers may have contributed to and contested these discourses.

Based on archival research conducted at several depositories, this article investigates how newspaper reports pertaining to Native performers with Baffalo Bill’s Wild West produced and reinforced discourses of conquest, progress, and civilization. These reports, through their presentation of Native comments, images, tourist activities, and events, advanced what I am calling a “foe-to-friend” narrative, particularly in North America, as part of an evolving discourse about civilizing and assimilating Native peoples. However, these written histories contain contradictions and discrepancies, reflecting the different voices of history and the various perspectives of different actors.5 In fact, Native performers’ voices and perspectives have also been recorded by the press. Performers expressed their own views, which both supported and challenged prevailing foe-to-friend discourses produced in newspaper reports. The examination of Native performers’ statements demonstrates that while they spoke of peace and friendship, they also used...


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pp. 143-176
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