A friend gave me a new book, We Had A Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy, as a Christmas gift. She knows that most of my reading these days is by Indian authors and about Indian history and culture. She’s heard me exclaim about boarding schools and broken treaties. She thought it might give me something about Indians that was a little lighter to read.
I glanced through it as she looked on, saw that there are chapters about Will Rogers, and told her thanks. It might be fun.
I had to read a few introductory chapters to get to Will Rogers. Chapter one was about Johnny Roberts, an Ojibwe social worker from my home state of Minnesota who drives five hours each way to Minneapolis as often as he can for seven minutes of stage time.
The first words of Chapter two are “Go onstage or go to jail.” I’ve read books on the Lakota, on Wounded Knee and I know the standard stuff about Buffalo Bill Cody. But I did not know that Sitting Bull’s extradition back from Canada led to the option of “prison time or performing with Buffalo Bill Cody.” Or, according to the same historian, Laura Browder, that “about thirty Native Americans captured at Wounded Knee were forced by the army to tour with Buffalo Bill in lieu of prison sentences.”
It was a twisted set of logic that got things to that point. The intense assimilation period of Allotment and boarding schools beginning in the 1880s strived to make Indians white and/or keep them out of sight on the reservations. Some Indians took allotments; whites bought up un-allotted land at bargain prices. But Indians—full or half-blood—could not just come and go from their reservations. Some went from boarding schools directly into the white world; others found that they could pick up some cash and get off the reservation by joining Buffalo Bill or other impresarios.
I’d always thought that this was a relatively benign activity. After all, Lucullus McWhorter did his own bit of arranging Indian appearances at county fairs with his Nez Perce and Yakima friends. He made sure they made cash money. Historian Phil Deloria thinks that Wild West shows were the greatest source of cash to the Pine Ridge Reservation from 1883-1916. It had seemed to me a kind of win-win situation.
But things are always more complicated when it comes to Indians—especially to Indians and the government. The Office of Indian Affairs (BIA precursor) thought that traveling the country and the world with Buffalo Bill might be too big a taste of freedom; it would make their imprisonment on the reservations unmanageable. So, they declared that any Indian who wished to perform with a Wild West show was free to do so, but would thereafter be stripped of allotments and the annuities spelled out by treaties.
Tthere was a continuing curiosity about the people colonization displaced. Sometimes real sympathy and intermarriage; sometimes the idea of the noble savage which was never fully eclipsed. And people could hold contradictory views. Buffalo Bill exploited the noble savage and true history notion across the country and the world! According to some contemporary Indian accounts, Cody did not share the view himself, but used it and the Indians he hired for the fame and money it brought him.
And Buffalo Bill came up with a workaround. Some Indians would be offered a choice of the Wild West show or prison. And that is where we get to Sitting Bull and the 30 Indians captured at Wounded Knee. Some Indians would be allowed—forced—to tour with Cody. He even paid fines to the government for his recruitment, while the government abetted him by constructing that deal with prisons and performance. Was it a way to deal with “trouble” Indians like Sitting Bull? What else do we know about the 30 captives from Wounded Knee, or other Natives who traveled with Cody? Or with McWhorter?
Remember, in this time period Indians were not citizens, in most states could not own property outside the reservation, and could not testify in court against whites. The do-gooders and the hard-liners fought over boarding school and allotment policies—and apparently over Wild West shows. Some whites—Colonel Pratt and Alice Fletcher among them—thought that the best thing for Indians was to put their history and culture in museums and learn white ways of farming, working, and keeping house and family. This group thought education and persuasion would eventually bring the Indians into the mainstream. Others thought that locking the holdouts on reservations until they became white farmers and families in place—or died off—would eventually solve the Indian problem.
The Wild West shows were another white invention to deal with Indians, who were the pawns in white differences on solving what they called “the Indian problem.”
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Note: Chief Joseph joined Buffalo Bill Cody in Madison Square Garden in 1897—one wonders whether he was paid, or whether it was the price of meeting with high-ranking politicians.