Creating the frontier Myth – American Indians in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

Image

But they’re not American Indians!…  Are they?

Yes they are!

This is the Tequesta tribe of South Florida; living in mud huts, wearing lightweight linens, travelling by canoe, fishing, growing crops and hunting alligators. It’s not quite the image of fearsome battles between cowboys and Indians, with tipis, buckskins and feathered headdresses that first come to mind at the mention of the word ‘Indian’ – is it? But where did this grossly homogenized, stereotypical image of such a diverse people come from? We see it reproduced and reinforced time and time again in popular culture and memory; on television, in the cinema in Westerns, novels etc.

The origin lies in popular culture itself. Tracing back to the mid 19th century, Dime novels, both inexpensive and accessible, began to produce and popularise the genre we now recognise as ‘the Western’. One of several popular stars of these novels was Buffalo Bill Cody. A US army scout, buffalo hunter, and brave adventurer, overcoming the ‘wildness’ of the West – its unforgiving environment and native people included – to advance the American frontier westward for the ‘benefit of civilisation and mankind’. Recognising the power of his fame and popularity and being quite the entrepreneur, Cody knew a fortune was to be made if he could bring these stories to life.

So in 1884 ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’ was born! This live show comprised of displays including the recreation of ‘real life historical’ battle scenes between cowboys and Indians, rodeo riding and Indian dances. Indians were depicted as the uncivilized and savage ‘other’, who must be either tamed or conquered, and who provided the necessary enemy (according to historian Joy Kasson) for the heroic white cowboys to conquer and triumph over evil in what we now know to be the myth of the American frontier. This was despite the fact that many Indians worked alongside and traded with Euro-Americans and “when there is trouble between white men and Indians it will be found that the white man is responsible through breaking faith with them” (from the Globe 1885). It was Cody who constructed the visual representation of this myth and made it so widely available to an extensive audience as the show toured through the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe over the next 30 years.

Segments of Thomas Edison’s turn of the century film of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

The influence and impact of the Wild West show is difficult for us to grasp today as entertainment is so readily available in so many forms. But in a time before television, iPhones and Facebook, the Wild West show became the ‘it’ thing, with crowds of 20,000 or more regularly in attendance (White). Additionally, it provided a representation of the frontier that was apparently an authentic and realistic account of the West – a “monument of historic and educational magnificence!” declared Cody on the 1888-9 season’s billboard poster. Its authenticity was provided by the feature of ‘real-life’ Indians and cowboys rather then actors and by the fact that Cody never actually dubbed his Wild West ‘a show’, taking away assumptions that it may be fictional. With this in place, audiences were ready to receive the displays as fact with one review in the Globe (Toronto, Canada) in 1885 stating that the Buffalo Bill and Yellow Hand confrontation was a “wonderfully realistic representation” despite considerable scripting and imagination on Cody’s part. The representation of the American Indian was just as easily and quickly adopted without question, allowing the myth to be perpetuated and the stereotyped image of the American Indian to be absorbed into popular memory.

1903 postcard from Buffalo Bill's Wild West - depicting Indians as violent savages

1903 postcard from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West – depicting Indians as violent savages

The show did not only construct Indians to be violent savages through their role in staged battle scenes that were not altogether true (Such as the Buffalo Bill and Yellow Hand encounter), but assembled the visual image of the Indian that we still recognise today. The buckskin and feather wearing, tipi dwelling, horseback riding Indian that we automatically think of with the word Indian, is the Indian constructed and perpetuated by Cody and his Wild West. This is where the image came to life and was distributed to the world. Cody stereotyped and homogenised a diverse range of cultures and societies under one image (that of the Plains Indian), disregarding the richness of cultures Indian people had to offer with more then 300 different languages and groups at the time of Euro-American settlement (Michelle H. Raheja). The typecasting of Indians as violent, primitive savages, as a single united enemy to civilization and the white way of life enabled the myth of the American frontier to exist. Without the American Indian role, there would be no myth, no Manifest Destiny and the foundation of American History and National Image would be uprooted.

Buffalo Bill and his cast of Indian's in 1890 - outfitted in buckskins and feathered headdresses with tipis in the background - how they would come to be homogenised and stereotyped in popular culture forever more.

Buffalo Bill and his cast of Indian’s in 1890 – outfitted in buckskins and feathered headdresses with tipis in the background – how they would come to be homogenised and stereotyped in popular culture forever more.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show may have been an exciting day out for several hundreds of thousands of people across the USA, the UK and Europe, but it also left a lasting legacy in popular culture and memory. The American Indian was defined as a violent savage enemy to be defeated, enabling the success of the frontier myth, and homogenised these diverse cultures under a single visual representation that continues to be reproduced again and again in popular culture even today.

 

Further Reading:

Author unknown, The Globe, (Toronto) 24/08/1885, as made available in the Oklahoma Federation of Labor Collection, M452, Box 113, Folder 1. Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.

Kasson, J (2001). Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. New York: Hill and Wang

Raheja, M.H. Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovreignty, and representations of Native Americans in Film. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), 2011

Slotkin, R (1998). The Gunfighter Nation: Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press

Smith, H.N. (1950). The Frontier Hypothesis and the Myth of the West. American Quarterly. 2 (1), pp. 3-11

Smith, R.B. (2006). Buffalo Bill’s Skirmish At Warbonnet Creek. Available: http://www.historynet.com/buffalo-bills-skirmish-at-warbonnet-creek.htm. Last accessed 2nd October 2013.

White, K. (2005). “Through Their Eyes: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as a Drawing Table for American Identity”. Honors Projects – Illinois Wesleyan University. Paper 1, 1-29.

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