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Buffalo Bill Cody and the shaping of modern America

Take a moment. Close your eyes and picture a cowboy. OK, ready? Did you visualize a tall white man wearing a Stetson hat, two guns fastened to his hip and spurs on his boots? This is the stereotype most of us have learned from movies and rodeos, so it can be quite a surprise to learn that it’s a false model. While the fabled dress code is rather trivial, many other spurious myths that have circulated about cowboys are far more significant. Aside from a few small groups of renegades, like Jack Hayes and his Texas Rangers, cowboys were not heroic sharpshooters who saved settlers from Indian attack; they were not upright gentlemen who personified American individualism; and for the most part they weren’t even white. The original cowboys were Mexican Vaqueros (Vaca meaning cow) and even by the late 1800’s about a third of all cowboys were freed southern slaves or Mexican immigrants. Known as “cowpokes” or “cowhands”, they made their mark after the Civil War when there was a greater need for young men to transport cattle from ranch to market. It was a difficult, dirty job that paid $25 - $40 per month, leaving no free time for rescuing white woman from Indian attack.

So why do so many people around the world have such a false impression of the old western cowboy? Almost entirely because of one man: Buffalo Bill Cody. Up against icons like Lincoln, Edison, or King, Buffalo Bill will never turn up on a list of America’s most important people, but if by “important” we mean influential, then Cody may deserve to be ranked among the top. William F. Cody was born in 1846 in what was then known as the Iowa territory. During the Civil War he served as a scout in the Union Army, but it was after the war that his name became synonymous with tracking Indian camps and killing buffalo. Well before he dreamed up his Wild West shows, Cody was a folk hero who played the protagonist in numerous dime store novels that were read throughout the country. And while these stories were fictional, we must remember that they were based on Cody’s real life adventures. He was certainly heroic when he saved his friend Wild Bill Hickok and over a hundred other men from starving to death during a fierce winter blizzard. He was also seen as a larger than life character when he singlehandedly took on a Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Hair in an epic battle reminiscent of King Arthur’s knights, even if Cody did have the obvious technological advantage. Cody shot the warrior with his Winchester Carbine then proceeded to scalp the man, pointing to the scalp as a symbol of revenge for the decimation of General Custer’s 7th Cavalry just a month prior. Cody later displayed Yellow Hair’s scalp, war bonnet, knife and saddle on stage during his reenactments of the battle. Today, many of us would view this type of flagrant exhibitionism as horrific, but during the countries centennial celebrations it was greeted with standing ovations.

By the time Cody invented his Wild West show in 1883, accompanied by his “Congress of Rough Riders”, he was already one of the most popular folk heroes in America. A year earlier he had organized the largest rodeo ever created and, with the help of many eager investors, he was now poised to become the most famous American in the world. His open air shows

became the most sought after event in the country and soon captured the imagination of the world when they traveled overseas, playing to at least seventy million during its thirty year run. Replete with gun smoke, real Native American squaws &warriors, stagecoaches, and of course, cowboys, these circus-like performances created an image of a reckless, independent young nation that lives to this day. With over 600 members of cast and crew, 400 horses, and 20 buffalo, the Wild West show was the only version of westward expansionism that people of the east coast and Europe ever saw. Why would anyone in New York, Chicago, France or Italy ever doubt what this verified mountain man had to say about the triumph over the brutal frontier?

Over the years many have asked why proud chiefs like Sitting Bull and Black Elk, whose people were practically annihilated by scouts like Cody, agreed to join in this bogus exhibition. For thousands of natives the main reason was that Cody’s show was the only safe haven where they could still practice their traditional dances and rituals, most of which had been banned on the reservations. The other reason was it afforded them the opportunity to travel the world while being fed and getting a small stipend. The Wild West show brought the Plains Indians to over one-thousand US cities where, for the first time, many of them finally saw the true scope of what they had been fighting against during the previous decades. During that time Cody and many of the natives developed a mutual respect for each other. Cody famously said that “Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.”

It was Buffalo Bill’s showmanship that catapulted blockbuster westerns from The Great Train Robbery to Stagecoach to The Searchers, all of which helped to reinforce the image of courageous cowboys and savage Indians. The fact that it was the US military, along with the buffalo hunters, who really fought and starved out the Plains Indians, is immaterial when historians use mere words to battle the images emblazoned on the big screen. Cowboys vs. Indians has become an American institution, buttressed by politicians and patriots, acted out by children, and used as a litmus test of good vs. evil. Before becoming President, Teddy Roosevelt formed his own cavalry of “Rough Riders” during the Spanish-American War and gained national fame when they stormed and seized San Juan Hill; Ronald Reagan was often depicted mounted on a horse, wearing a cowboy hat; and anyone who follows American politics will be able to pick out a myriad references to the bravery and sacrifice of the almighty cowboy.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union (1945 to 1991) was another defining period in American history. If the post Civil War era created America’s identity as a nation of immigrants who will fight for freedom, civilization, and industrial growth then the Cold War era cemented that image by making America the world’s leading superpower and police state. Thereafter, whenever we sent troops to fight abroad it had to be framed in the context of making the world safe for democracy; in other words, being the good guys. That was why newsreels of young men burning their draft cards during the Vietnam War was so jarring and controversial for many Americans. Non-violent protests such as these force us to question not only our core values but also the whole American narrative.

More recently many non-natives felt compelled to choose sides during the showdown at Standing Rock between the Sioux and the energy industry. The story was immediately recognizable and easily framed as an age old tale that is as familiar to all Americans as baseball and apple pie. The ill-fated, impoverished Indians were once again fighting against all odds against a Goliath of the modern age. But perhaps the time has come to view this battle from a new vantage point. Perhaps it’s time for a fresh narrative that is not based on myths and legends.

As David Treuer, author of the newly released Heartbeat of Wounded Knee recently said: “The protest at Standing Rock once again got framed as a problem of Cowboys vs. Indians…I disagree with the rhetoric and the context and the framing; I certainly don’t disagree with the protest. The subtext, the real conflict, is between what we value more: corporate interest or the common good. That’s the war that’s being fought in South Dakota and that’s the war that’s being fought over our continued reliance on fossil fuels. It’s not Cowboys vs. Indians…I might’ve lobbied for a different narrative.”


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