by Ernest Hogan
Seems like the ghost of Buffalo Bill is stalking me. A reprint of a dime novel about him found me in New Mexico, then a copy of Linda Scarangella McNenly’s Native Performers in Wild West Shows: From Buffalo Bill to Euro Disney came my way.
Oh yeah. Buffalo Bill has set up shop in Paris. Like a persistent ghost . . .
The Wild West show and the dime novel were the origins of the western genre, which in the beginning was all about explaining just what are all these white people doing in this untamed country? After making his name killing buffalo, William Frederick Cody became the star of dime novels and pioneered the Wild West show: a chimera of theater and the circus that is also an ancestor of performance art.
McNenly’s book is a fascinating account of this business/art form with political consequences. It focuses on the native performers and their transformation from menaces to commercial attraction/myth figures. Faced with the deconstruction of their world, you can’t blame some for preferring show biz to the Office of Indian Affairs’ “civilizing” policies on the reservations.
As Short Boy, put it in 1911: I wouldn’t go back to the reservation for a new rifle and cartridges enough to last me the rest of my life . . . He enjoyed fighting American soldiers “even with blank cartridges.”
In 2004, Kevin “Kave” Dust, who worked at the Euro Disney (with Mickey Mouse) explained: I am protected through the medicine man and my strong tradition. I am still here, still proud, and still alive.
Native Performers in Wild West Show was a rather surreal read for an academic study. It has me rethinking my own Wild West environment, and wondering about futuristic developments.
It also gave me the urge to re-read Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller. South America’s myths and traditions about native tribes is different than those of the North. No heroic wars romanticized are by popular culture and the entertainment industry. Still, there are parallels to the bizarre world of the Wild West show . . .
The Storyteller of the title is Saúl Zuratas, called “Mascarita” because of birthmark on his face that, along with his being Jewish, makes him an outsider in Peru. He is driven away from civilization and becomes obsessed with the culture of the Machiguenga Indians: “Do our cars, guns, planes, and Coca-Colas give us the right to exterminate them?” He doesn’t want them made into “zombies and caricatures of men, like those semi-acculturated Indians you see in Lima.”
Disgusted by acculturation and assimilation, he wishes that Machiguenga could remain isolated, and their culture preserved in a state of purity. Instead of creating a mestizo identity for the modern world, he goes native, becoming a storyteller for the tribe.
But still, civilization is out there, creeping through the jungle . . .
Meanwhile, in Arizona, I see postmodern Americanos looking for the same kind of purity and spirituality that’s missing in their lives. They often find themselves in the hands of snake oil salesmen. Sedona is an inside-out Wild West show, with high-priced psychics instead of simulated Indian attacks.
Eventually, the entire world could be a Wild West show, but who will be the natives?
If you look at the rodeo coverage in the Navajo Times, these days, a lot of the cowboys are Indians.