From The Wall Street Journal:
At the heart of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which thrilled audiences from 1883 to 1913, was a story about the struggle for the U.S. frontier. According to historian Richard White, the show featured the myth of the “inverted conquest,” depicting white Americans as victims suffering at the hands of their Native enemies and thus sanitizing their invasion of Indian country; in this telling, settler aggression was merely a form of self-defense. Not one to skimp on realism, William F. Cody (better known by his stage name, Buffalo Bill) enlisted dozens of Native people—some of whom had even fought against the U.S. military—to appear in his extravaganza, playing the foils. And for a brief stint in 1885, the Lakota holy man Sitting Bull, the era’s most famous Indian, was a celebrated member of the cast. A pair of new and starkly contrasting books considers his through-the-looking-glass experience starring in the endless rout of his own people.
In “Blood Brothers,” Deanne Stillman, a California-based author of four previous books about the West, offers a condensed history of the Wild West show, homing in on the unlikely bond between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull. Already regionally famous for his exploits as an Army scout and bison hunter, Cody became a bona fide national hero in 1876, when, a few weeks after the Indian victory at the Little Bighorn, he killed a Cheyenne warrior, taking “the first scalp for Custer.” Sitting Bull, by contrast, though not present at the annihilation of the Seventh Cavalry, was nevertheless blamed for the slaughter and fled to safety in Canada for five years before agreeing to confinement on the Standing Rock Reservation. Ms. Stillman explains that, despite the divergent paths they walked, a genuine friendship blossomed between the two men after the Sioux leader joined the Wild West show, begetting the slogan, “Foes in ’76, Friends in ’85.”
Cody banked on Sitting Bull’s notoriety to draw crowds. And spectators flocked to the show—some came to boo and hiss, but many others to gaze with fascination upon “the Napoleon of the Great Plains,” as he was billed. In exchange for Sitting Bull’s participation—which consisted of a single turn around the arena, in a buggy or on horseback—he was the highest-paid member of the ensemble and retained exclusive rights to the sale of his image and autograph, which proved to be lucrative. But by the end of his first season he had tired of life on the road and wished only to return home to South Dakota. It was there, in December 1890, that he was killed by his own people, when a group of reservation police came to arrest him in hope of containing the Ghost Dance movement.
. . . .
The novelist and film director Éric Vuillard, whose recent book about Hitler won the Goncourt Prize for 2017, shares none of Ms. Stillman’s optimism. First published in France in 2014 to great acclaim, his “Sorrow of the Earth” (translated into crisp and colloquial English by Ann Jefferson ) is a pungent work of historical reimagining, blending fact and speculation to capture the perspective of Sitting Bull and other Native performers in Cody’s show. The picture that emerges is ugly and dispiriting. Gone is the coarse but avuncular Buffalo Bill of more established narratives. Whatever financial benefit the Indian participants receive is offset by their ruthless exploitation, which includes, after each performance, the hocking of trinkets “that derive from their genocide.” And the men, women and children in the audience, who turn out in droves, are stirred less by curiosity than their unquenchable (and unselfconscious) hatred of Native peoples.
. . . .
Only in the United States, Mr. Vuillard intimates, could a huckster like Cody turn the tragedy of Native dispossession, still unfolding even as the Wild West toured across North America and Europe, into a garish, multimillion-dollar extravaganza, with the Indians playing themselves. Mr. Vuillard’s contempt for the show, its creator and its audience is palpable.
. . . .
But as with many ad hominem indictments, over time the insults that stand in for argument come to seem lazy and imprecise. The same is true of sweeping generalizations and overstatements, intended to provoke reflection but which instead begin to clutter the book. Take this: “Civilization is a huge and insatiable beast. It feeds on everything.” Or this: “Previously, no American or any Westerner in the world had ever seen anything. Up until now, all they had seen was their dreams.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal
PG is far from a real historian, but he has read enough history to know that, over the ages, the world has been full of conquerors and their supporters. Of course, where there are conquerors, there are conquered. Since the conquered are understandably unwilling to be ruled by others, wars of all sizes and types have been a near-constant feature of the human condition. No major portion of the habitable world has been free from such activity.
One might wish otherwise (PG does), but the history of every 21st century civilization includes a significant history of warfare and conquest. Likewise the history of every 20th, 19th, 18th, etc., civilization. Ancient Egypt was a great conqueror and destroyer/enslaver of other peoples. Likewise ancient China and Rome. Arab slave traders had built a large and complex network for capturing and selling Africans as slaves long before any Western nations started the same practices.
The twentieth century records frequent depredations of one group by another:
- The “liquidation of Kulaks as a class” ordered by Joseph Stalin from 1929-1933 resulted in the deaths of 6 million (suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) or 3 million (Soviet Archives) mostly Ukrainian peasants who were called Kulaks and identified as “class enemies” because they had owned even a very small portion of land or employed even one person.
- The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), which began when Japan invaded China with no real provocation, resulted in 20 million Chinese dead and 15 million wounded (PRC) or 1.5 million Chinese killed in battle, 750,000 missing in action, 1.5 million deaths due to disease and 3 million wounded (US academic studies).
On a personal note, while he was in elementary school, PG’s best friend was the son of a Japanese couple who (as PG realized only much later) had been interned in the US during World War II. PG played high school football (badly) on the same team with members of the Dakota Sioux Nation, whose ancestors had fought a successful battle in a losing war at a site within walking distance from the house where PG lived.
The Dakota War of 1862 began when a Dakota hunting party killed five settlers and a council of Dakota decided to attack settlements throughout the Minnesota River valley to try to drive whites out of the area. The Dakota then began attacks on hundreds of settlers and immigrants, driving them from their homes. The war ended when 38 Dakota were captured by the United States army and hanged. In Abraham Lincoln’s second annual address as president, he stated that not less than 800 men, women, and children had died.
PG is not excusing any of this behavior, but disputes the idea that the United States or Western Civilization is uniquely guilty of crimes or historically atypical behavior against ethnic groups with which it came into conflict.