Behind the scenes at Buffalo Bill's Wild West.
The Lakota referred to themselves as oskate wicasa, or "one who performs." Hundreds worked for Buffalo Bill between 1883 and 1917. They traveled the world, earned good wages, and participated in cultural practices otherwise discouraged on reservations in America.
Drawn primarily from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Indians worked for Buffalo Bill's Wild West in large numbers. Both behind the scenes and in the arena, a remarkable and consistent level of sympathy for Native culture allowed American Indians the opportunity to preserve cultural practices. Yet in its own ways, the Wild West promoted a vision of Progressive reform.
Between 1870 and 1920, Progressives developed a remarkably ambitious agenda that sought to control businesses, eliminate poverty, purify politics, and transform other Americans in their image. Progressive ideals had their roots among middle–class Gilded Age men and women who transformed their views of the individual, society, gender, and leisure between the end of the Civil War through the turn of the century. Progressives demanded social transformation through a broad array of settlement houses, churches, schools, courtrooms, and legislative halls. Progressives, however, were far from unified in their approach to a broad social agenda.
For many Progressives, Buffalo Bill's Wild West was a source of frustration. Assimilationist Progressives—religious or government reformers—often approached the Progressive agenda through common ways. Among Native Americans, Progressives sought to force Native people to adopt reforms and eradicate their traditional lifestyles. The image of Indians as "savage" and "uncivilized" was commonly held among Assimilationist Progressives. Autonomous Progressives, such as William F. Cody, believed in the reformist ideals of Progressivism but differed in his method. Rather than insist upon compulsory transformations, Cody believed in enabling Indians to come to terms with modern society on their own. Cody never discouraged tribal culture but allowed Native peoples to continue cultural practices both in the arena and behind the scenes. The differing ideologies and images of Indians collided in the Wild West, most spectacularly in 1899 in a dispute between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Wild West. More than a battle over whose image of Indians would prevail, the differing progressive ideologies surrounding the Wild West illustrate strains of progressive reform and conflicts over federal Indian policy.
William F. Cody and the Progressive Wild West seeks to examine Cody's attitudes towards American Indians and present a scholarly argument in the digital form.