Thursday, January 26, 2017
Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming
A man of contradictions, Buffalo Bill Cody painted himself as a hero, but he had a shady past. As a youth, his family was victim to hostile settlers, their lives threatened and home robbed when his father had to flee for his life. Yet as a teenager, Cody inflicted on others the same thing done to his family as a child as he enlisted with militant bands of fighters that stole, persecuted, and burned the homes of innocent people. In his Wild West show, Cody exploited hired Native American's to make whites feel superior, but he also treated the Indians well in terms of food, money, and certain freedoms. He claimed he was "equal" with Chief Sitting Bull, but scalped an Indian for his own glory and portrayed the Indians as savages in his show. When he died the Oglala Lakota Indians issued a statement expressing their sympathies and calling him a "warm and lasting friend." He was respectful and disrespectful. He was generous and exploitive. He was flawed and real.
Why did hundreds of Indians agree and show up for tryouts year-after-year (that lasted 30 years) to be in Cody's show when he went to the reservations seeking talent? The show was demeaning. In sections called, "Panning The Truth," Fleming reveals the historical context and the horrible conditions of the reservations where Native Americans were starving. Cody paid his employees fairly well with enough to feed their relatives. On reservations, Native Americans couldn't practice their religion in sweat lodges, sing, dance, wear traditional costumes, speak their native language, ride horses, live in tipis, or leave without the government's permission, to name a few. Acting in the show let them reclaim their past and pass on traditions they were afraid of losing. They could visit other relatives on different reservations. Chief Sitting Bull joined the show to save his tribe from starvation. And he came to hate the show. Fleming's task of presenting the complexities of Buffalo Bill's character and self-centeredness is handled with skill and care. Readers can decide for themselves what to think of him.
The Indians were one of the Wild West show's main attractions with the U.S. government approving whether or not over a hundred could perform in the show. Cody re-enacted a Buffalo hunt, battle between Native Americans and colonialists, and a stagecoach attack. These scenes required Indians for authenticity; however, when on tour in Europe seven died from diseases and accidents. The government began an investigation that threatened to revoke the use of Native Americans in the show (not because they feared for their safety and well-being but because they wanted to make them live like the "white man" and Cody's show perpetuated their traditions). In response to the investigation, Cody sought out and added to his show skilled foreign horsemanship from Russian, South America, and Arabs countries. In a strange twist, the government not only dropped their investigation but gave thirty Native Americans the choice of going to prison or joining Buffalo Bill's show after the Wounded Knee Massacre. Twenty-three signed up with Cody's show and brought their families totaling more than seventy people. Cody's show had 650 employees, buffaloes, horses, elk, deer, and more. It was an enormous production requiring large outdoor spaces to perform.
Lately, I've been reading books like, "The Underground Railroad," by Colson Whitehead with the theme of the victor or dominant group in a society controlling the narrative of history or literature to suit themselves and their agenda. Candace Fleming uses this same theme revealing how Buffalo Bill created a show that romanticized the West, but was a far cry from the realistic brutality, racism, and selfish exploitation of the times. Buffalo Bill was an international celebrity during his life. A superstar who knew how to sell himself. And While Fleming doesn't judge, readers might feel some cognitive dissonance that reveals self-awareness of racial prejudices. Or not. If you just want a fun yarn, you can get that from it too. Don't miss this one.