Not Everyone Loved Buffalo Bill

"Buffalo Bill is again in this country. Having captured millions of dollars from the fools of England who went crazy over his overdrawn pictures of our western life, he will now try to gull New Yorkers, Brooklynites, and other Eastern people into thinking that the Indians are savage beasts, fit only to be shot down like dogs or to wear paint and feathers to please the eye of an excited crowd. That disgraceful show can do more in six months, to drag the Indian down and give a wrong impression of his real character, than forty Carlisle’s could do in six years to build the Indian up and help him to stand on his own feet, on good solid ground. Buffalo Bill is rapidly tearing down what all good schools for the Indian are building up." --May 25, 1888 INDIAN HELPER

As I have mentioned before, I am teaching a course this quarter on William F. Cody (that's Buffalo Bill to you) and the Wild West. It is a fun class, since it takes in so many aspects of the American West and popular culture. Another enjoyable aspect of the course is finding the connections between Cody and other famous figures, from Calamity Jane to Teddy Roosevelt to the Queen of England. Once you begin looking for Buffalo Bill, you find him everywhere.

Including in the Indian Helper, the newspaper of the Carlisle Indian School, from which the above quote is taken. Many of the Indian reformers who supported the boarding school movement and other efforts to "civilize" American Indians by forcing them to behave more like white people hated Cody and the other entertainers who hired Indians for frontier shows. At the very same time the reformers were trying to confine Indians to reservations where they could be forced to adopt agriculture and Christianity and dress like white people. Cody was hiring Indians (at $25 a month and more!) to travel with him across America and over to Europe, where they would wear traditional costumes, ride horses, and scare big audiences of white people. Reformers repeatedly tried to deny Cody permission to hire reservation Indians for his show, but Cody cultivated powerful political contacts and always got his Indians.

I should also add that modern Indians and historians tend to see Cody as the better friend of the Indians, pointing out that he paid and treated them well and gave at least a few Indians a chance to escape the grinding poverty and cultural oppression of the reservation at a low point in American Indian history. The best single volume on the subject is by L.G. Moses, Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians.

A delightful view of the reformer's anti-Cody propaganda can be found on this web page: References to "Buffalo Bill" in the Carlisle Indian School Newspapers. The above quote is taken from this page. The page was created by public historian Barbara Landis, who also has a nice blog about the Carlisle Indian School. For a different view, see this excellent Wikipedia page on "Show Indians" created by University of Nebraska graduate student Jason Heppler.

[Image: Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, Montreal, QC, 1885, via WikiMedia Commons.]