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Buffalo Bill and the Indians

20 January 2018

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.


23 Comments to “Buffalo Bill and the Indians”

  1. 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.

    And while the Europeans were unable to match that tasteless excess, the year after the Wild West Show ended they introduced the garish, multi-billion dollar extravaganza known as World War I, still unfolding all across the world.

  2. Thank You.

  3. From the late 1850s until the early 1920s, German Karl May wrote a series of novels about an heroic and noble Apache and his white blood brother, and the novels were wildly popular. When the Wild West performers came to Germany, the crowds were excited to see real Indians, but they thought the Indians were the good guys, and they were confused and unhappy for them to be bad guys. The various shows had to be rewritten so that the Indians and some of the nicer white cowboys saved the settlers from the evil cowboys. The crowds grew.

    Weird but true.

  4. 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.

    A small historical note. The internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War was done not by an act of Congress but by a presidential executive order.

    • Rule by decree has a long and nasty history in the US.
      Nothing good has ever come of it, even when icons like Lincoln and FDR did it.
      Worse yet with lesser beings.

      • Rule by decree has a long and nasty history in the US.
        Nothing good has ever come of it . . . .


  5. just this; I could write volumes, or more so, bring my brothers and sisters and our elders to this discussion which would go on for long and long.

    Among the tribes here, William Cody is despised as an indian killer, an exploiter of innocents, a mocker of cultures not his own, a thief of wages, an introducer of alcohol to native peoples, a demon who scalped living human beings.

    When history is told/written by those who are tribal, the stories change, often significantly. Sitting Bull was not ‘killed by his own people’. I just shake my head at reading things like this. He was murdered. And unarmed. And to the govt it was a boon, it appears. There was no justice sought for he who was a holy man and a leader, nor for his wife’s terror, for his children’s sustenance.

    Back in the day there were peace chiefs and war chiefs. That has not changed, will never change. At Standing Rock, there are those who believe agression is the only answer, and others who believe working with are the only answer. As one might imagine, this was also true in Sitting Bull’s time.

    To empower native people with rifles to harm others at will and reckless rages, is not new. It is old. Old. I never in mylifetime expected to see Buddhists murder others, as in Myanmar, murdering the Buddhist priests and nuns under Than Swe’s dictatorship [his idea was to starve the people and pay the young buddhists subsistence food wages to carry fire and kill whomever the pig-eyed greedy Swe indicated. It is not different with the Rohinga currently. In each instance, there are those dedicated to peace. And there are those who –often for food enough for the family– go against their own.

    What they dont realize, is their keepers/controllers, will eventually do to the natie ‘police/army/soldiers/ what harms they empowered the native people to do to their own.

    It is beyond sad. And unecessary in my .02

    Just to try to perhaps shed light on ‘back then’ from circumstances ‘right now’ [if one thinks this exploitation, efforts at divisiveness is in the past, one would be unaware…]… Standing Rock/ pipeline. Oil co building the despised pipeline, offered jobs building it to Lakota. Some took the jobs to be able to feed their families, fix their transportation, feed their animals and buy seed. How might one think that sat with other Lakota who were on front lines protecting their water and food sources downstream?

    The US govt interference with policing Native people is a pathetic exercise that far too often looks the other way while allowing justice to be trampled… for leaders, elders, women, children and men. Currently the rez police and the feds overlap, argue about jurisdiction. To add to that almost everyone on rez is related to everyone else. Cousin A is not going to arrest Uncle B, often. Also as in any group, there are feuds. There are many murders

    • How might one think that sat with other Lakota who were on front lines protecting their water and food sources downstream?

      They probably drove their cars and trucks to a protest somewhere.

      • Standing Rock was as much “Lakota land” as it was the settlers’ land, because the Lakota hadn’t been there for anything more than forty years when the Lakota War began.

        The Lakota were from Wisconsin. As various other tribes and various US groups moved in, they left and invaded Missouri and the Dakotas, driving out the native tribes, or moving in where other tribes had moved out. All of this happened during the days of Austen and Dickinson, not in time immemorial.

        So either all is fair in love and war, and possession is nine-tenths of the law… or the Lakota should give all that stolen land back to its previous owners. Their real sacred land is in Wisconsin, being used by the Menominee; they should be protesting there.. except that they abandoned that land, didn’t they?

        • the lakota sued the federal government regarding the Black Hills which were taken from them. And won a billion dollar settlement, just a few years back. It is their land.

          Removal from one’s own hunting and fishing lands are clearly stated in the US treaties of the 1800s, broken by the us Army and US government, caused pressure under pain of death of families, to try to get as far away from military and US govt encroachment and their lying commandantes as possible.

          Distinct setasides, rezes, forced movement, the long walks, are well recorded in history ironically written by the very men who forced the native people to be both ethnically cleansed and dislocated.

          One can read in the 1800s treaties with Lakota for instance, where US Govt promised no setttlers in black hills, then turned around and invaded Lakota land with settlers and protected the settlers instead of the native people, as govt had promised protection for natives in the treaty. It would not be so. Not even close.

          Anyone who wishes to know about the Lakota of Standing Rock, can apply to speak to the 20 Lakota elders who are currently the Lakota Band Council on the Standing Rock rez, and can also apply to speak to the elders who make up the counsels at the other 8 Lakota bands.

          Generally, if one wants to know more about Lakota or other of the 550+ native tribal groups federally recognized in the USA they might be interested in becoming a student of broken treaties, which are now with internet access, very available in seeing the far larger overview of deceit and invasion into native life, by US government. One can follow the same research in Canada and the ‘royal’ govt’s ways with the natives, including in both USA and Canada, the forced disruption of native religions by clergy.

  6. well, sorry, a couple paragraphs in comment wound up farther down, when I wrote them to go higher up. Sorry, hope its not too zigzag.

  7. Excellent observations, PG. Indeed, Abe Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” personally condemned 38 Dakota Indians to death, resulting in the largest mass execution in US history.

    • That’s…not quite what happened. 307 Indians were convicted of various crimes and sentenced to hang by a military board that was less than conscientious. Lincoln asked for a review of the evidence, found most of it unconvincing, and commuted sentence for all but 38 of those convicted.

    • thanks Mike and Tom. The history of the hundreds of tribes is a lifetime study if one doesnt hear the stories firsthand, and even then, hard to cover all that occurred, including bribing native people to be allies, then abandoning them to be charged with violence, and you know, to fatigue to try to explain to dead hearts, so much more that came down, that still rains down.

      Appreciate people who strive to have the aerial view of the theft of lands not just here but over the world. As I’ve said many times at this site; there is no ethnic group that has not been slaughtered/ enslaved/ destroyed/ mocked/ thought ‘life unworthy of life.’ It appears those who still stand in extensive family groups remember their own histories. Ive been impressed with same among the many jewish groups as well, knowing their history, and often the irish also. It may have something to do with having a tradition of bards, griots, artists that noted events in paint/carvings, cuenteros, misterios, wisdom/miracle rebbes who tell the histories over and over…

      If one reads deep about the many ‘indian killers’ and their cohorts who supported their literal hunting of human beings: children, women, elders, men, holy people, it appears a clearcut study of something in human nature in some people that approaches cruelty, demeaning others in order to feel ‘there, I disempowered the vermin of the earth’. Hatred and willingness to attack those who are different or not in agreement or just minding their own business.

      When I travel the badlands or the mohave or sonora deserts or the open skies of the dakotas, montana, colorado, wyoming, utah, idaho, nevada, new mexico, arizona… you see miles upon miles of open land, miles and miles and miles that 150 years ago was even far far less ‘built.’ Many of us believe there was land enough, water enough, resources enough for everyone to live. That the issue underlying the destruction of peoples was hatred and a desire to irradicate. Entitled anger that ‘all I see is mine to possess’ and a deep desire to punish that which would not immediately submit or who for preservation family and community, resisted.

      I often think of Weisel saying the best of hearts did not survive the death camps, for they rushed to protect others and were murdered on the spot. In our time, we have those who murder with firearms and attempt to throw acid with words.

      I do not know the answers for other than my family. I only know the history.

      • It does seem evil to push people off of lands that still aren’t really in use 100 years later.

        • I was thinking this when touring the national parks in Utah, which are extensive. Subconsciously I expected to be showed around by Native Americans. Dunno why I thought that, or if it’s racist or not, but I remember being surprised that it wasn’t all run by the tribes. Shows how naive I am I guess.

          • there are some park rangers esp in the four corners area, who are also native people. But the commanche, arapahoe, ute, the bands of lakota and bands of apache and clans of diné and the certain of the puebloan tribes were ‘removed’ from their usual lands and ranges, relegated to often the most harsh land, if youve ever been to ariz/so utah. The tribes dont own the national monuments or national parks. They were removed from those lands, including tribes killed to extinction.

            Nor do they have stewardship over more than might be right on their own rez. Bear’s Ears which was declared by govt a national treasure/monument by the work of five tribes about a year and a half ago, has recently been reduced by a million acres by the
            new admin.

            It would have been the first nat’l land stewarded by forest service/park rangers [even though underfunded dramatically now] and tribal groups time five.

  8. PG, do be careful. Denying the unique horror of Western Culture and especially the US, will get you branded as an alt-right person (which means Nazi).

    I’m not being funny.

  9. hi Passive Guy –
    Thanks for linking to review of my book, Blood Brothers. Interesting to see the conversation that followed.
    There’s a lot missing from the review, as you can note in this Newsweek excerpt. And to continue the conversation, here’s an interview about my book…

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