Native American Participants

Unfortunately, little is presently known about many of the individual participants in Buffalo Bill's Wild West. As more knowledge becomes available through archives, researchers, and tribes, a more complete biography of the participants and Buffalo Bill's Wild West will greatly benefit our understanding of Gertrude Käsebier's unique portraits of some of the Sioux performers. What we do know comes through glimpses of William F. Cody's relationship with the Sioux and the conditions of camp life at the shows. There is no evidence that Käsebier and Cody ever met, just as there is no evidence that Käsebier ever became an advocate for Native peoples' rights in the early twentieth century despite her genuine affection and respect for her Sioux friends. For the most part, this project does not focus on the people in Käsebier's photographs but rather how the 1898 studio visit by nine Sioux men shapes the way we understand Käsebier's photography career and her role as a pictorialist. However, it is unjust to place all the focus on Käsebier when her sitters alone are so compelling. The following section briefly contextualizes the experience of the participants in Buffalo Bill's Wild West.

Heron Heron. By Gertrude Käsebier. Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Note the spectators in the background on the right.

The show's touring schedule was grueling, each spring through fall, with performances twice daily, weather permitting. For their participation, performers received wages, food, transportation, and living accommodations while far away from their homes. Behind the painted backdrops of the show, cast members lived in the Wild West's "village," or encampment, where visitors could stroll, meet performers, and explore the Indian tipi village.

Buffalo Bill's presence as the main draw for audiences was significant, but the hundreds of American Indians he contracted with each season were also immensely popular with audiences. The Show Indians performed the most popular selections on the programs, such as the "Attack on the Deadwood Mail Coach" and the "Battle of Little Bighorn." According to historian Joy Kasson, despite "all its complexity, the audiences encounter with the American Indian performers continued to be one of the Wild West's defining features." (Kasson 2000, 217-219)

When Cody launched his Wild West traveling show in 1883, the Indian wars were nearing an end. The victorious U.S. government claimed the land and efforts were made to encourage American Indians to assimilate into existing society and adopt "civilized" ways. By negotiated treaties, the Indians were forced to live according to the reservation system. Few options beyond reservation life or faraway government-run Indian schools existed for American Indians, no matter what tribe.

Ironically, the Show Indians at times performed programs that dramatized the very battles, raids, and massacres in which they had actually participated. The Indians played roles in the show concurrent with the image of Native Americans perpetuated by the U.S. government and news media, in Native American historian L.G. Moses' words, as "an Indian [as] noble savage, a rapacious killer; a reservation idler, the vanishing American, or a war-bonneted equestrian raider of the plains." (Moses 1996, 4) While actively marketing and exploiting the lives of these Indians, Buffalo Bill firmly believed himself a benevolent friend to the Indians, despite the years of Indian scouting for the U.S. military and vicious duels with Indians such as Yellow Hair, whom he reportedly scalped in July 1876. (Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Museum Catalog, 1995: 20, 35) Cody negotiated with agents for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to work within the federal government system and obtain signed contracts with the BIA to allow Indians to leave their reservations and travel with Buffalo Bill's Wild West.

Samuel "Sammie" Lone Bear's 1905 Contract. McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming.

Moses' research also concluded that the "Indians who performed in the Wild West shows beginning in the 1880s had known life before the reservation experience profoundly altered their cultures. They were members of a transitional generation, one that encountered for the first time the full weight of comprehensive government programs to eradicate native life . . . neither the reformers nor the members of the Indian service could compel the Indians to remain at home and lead more 'productive' lives." (Moses 1996, 7-8) Each season American Indians selected by Buffalo Bill and his representatives accepted the conditions and terms of their government contracts as a way out of the harsh existence on the newly formed reservations. The Indians agreed to obey the rules and regulations of the Wild West Company. Their contracts specifically included wording that each Indian would return to their homeland when the show tour ended. (Curator's files)

The McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming preserves an original 1905 contract agreement between Cody and business partner James A. Bailey of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Company and the American Indian "Sammie Lone Bear" of the Pine Ridge Agency reservation, South Dakota. A monthly salary of $25.00 was listed for Sammie's accompanying "the exhibition." The document stated that Cody and Bailey were responsible for providing "proper food and raiment, except one set of Indian Clothes, Head Dress, moccasins, etc., to start with, and to pay all his needful incidental expenses from the date of leaving Pine Ridge Agency until his return thereto..." They were to protect said Indian from "all immoral influences and surroundings, and provide all needful medical attendance and medicine and do all such other acts and things as may be requisite and proper for the health, comfort and welfare of the said party" and therefore liable for the health, welfare and comfort of any Indian in their employment. (Contract with "Sammie" Lone Bear, McCracken Research Library).

Undoubtedly, the most well-known Indian chief to travel with Buffalo Bill's Wild West was Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Sioux, who spent just one season with the show, the summer of 1885. Sitting Bull was infamous for his involvement with the massacre of U.S. Cavalry troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn in the summer of 1876. He and his tribe then fled American soil for Canada for approximately four years, during which hardships plagued the group. With little food or resources, Sitting Bull eventually decided to make the trip back to his homelands, and surrendered to United States officials on July 20, 1881. As a prisoner of war, he would, for the rest of his life, be a ward of the American government. Sitting Bull was made to live and farm at the Standing Rock Agency reservation, and report to Indian agent James McLaughlin. His efforts and that of his devoted Sioux could no longer prevent the advancing efforts of the U.S. military who sought final control of all the Indians' western homelands. Although forced to remain on the reservation, Sitting Bull had established himself as a notable figure among Native Americans. Cody immediately recognized the possibilities for Sitting Bull's celebrity stature.

Initially, the Secretary of the Interior was opposed to Sitting Bull joining Cody's tour. But Cody and his general manager, John Burke, relentlessly pursued the contract for Sitting Bull's services, finally arranging for Sitting Bull's appearances in the show's parade and in the arena but not in the dramatic segments. His pay was set at fifty dollars per week, with a bonus of $125. His interpreter, William Halsey, and five men and three women would also be allowed to travel with the show at smaller salaries. Sitting Bull also was granted the right to sell his portrait photographs and autographs during the tour. Once on opposite sides of war, Cody and Sitting Bull performed together for the one season. Huge crowds flocked to the performances. Ticket sales soared and Cody's finances stabilized to ensure the future of Buffalo Bill's Wild West. (Kasson 2000, 170-171)

The 1885 contract, while satisfying both Cody and Sitting Bull, would be the only one ever allowed. Sitting Bull's status concerned the Bureau of Indian Affairs and agent McLaughlin. Sitting Bull was never again allowed to leave Standing Rock. His interest in the Ghost Dance movement of his people and religious missionaries led to his death in December 1890. Sitting Bull was shot by Indian police attempting to arrest him at his home. Just two weeks later, tensions let to the massacre of Sioux families at Wounded Knee, a devastating and virtual end to the Indian wars for their sovereignty and lands. Indians remained sequestered, living on reservations or sent to government-run schools for "Americanization." The U.S. government closely guarded its control of land and all Native Americans.

The government would not ban the Indians' participation in Buffalo Bill's Wild West or any later competing shows, but regulated it through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Moses' research shows that "reformers believed the shows/exhibitions were "contrary to the best interests of the Indians . . . Ironically, the approach of Cody's Wild West organization was not unlike that of the reformers: both favored assimilation of the First Americans. Indeed, Buffalo Bill continually emphasized that Indians should adapt to a modern world. So did the Indians themselves." (Moses 1996, 63-64)

The Indian men, women, and children of the Wild West lived peacefully, coexisting with the diverse groups living and working in the Wild West village and the many curious visitors. When not performing for sold-out crowds, the Indians would venture out by automobiles or commuting by train, and for sightseeing on their own to major city attractions. ("Indians See the Fish" 1900; "Redskin Commuters a Civilized Type" 1907) Interpreters translated for them inside and outside the Wild West camp.

Program segments were practiced before the start of each season at the Wild West home base in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The set included sweeping backdrop panoramic scenes, special electric lighting, and wind storm effects to effectively duplicate the rolling landscape of the American West. Cody's frontier spirit and that of the Indians were revived daily during the grand parades, battles, and rescues. All acts were meticulously choreographed to represent an American West that was becoming a distant memory. As L. G. Moses writes,

Indians survived "Winning the West," both in reality and then as portrayed in the shows. Whether on or off the reservations, they drew strength from their cultures to sustain them. It is a testimony to their remarkable resilience that, given the hostile environment created by the governments and Euroamericans between 1883 and 1917, the time of Buffalo Bill's career in the Wild West, Indians and their cultures endured. (Moses 1996, 194)

While photography of the Wild West was common, sitting for Gertrude Käsebier's studio portraits would have been a unique experience for the nine Lakota men who showed up at her studio in April, 1898. Despite their status as seasoned performers, studio photography was not common for the performers, and makes Käsebier's collection even more important for those studying Buffalo Bill's Wild West Warriors.