Friday, July 7, 2017
Lakota Performers in Europe: Their Culture and the Artifacts They Left Behind”by Steve Friesen ( University of Oklahoma Press“ )
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was an icon not just in the U.S. but in Europe as well. So little surprise that when his Wild West show had run out of new venues in this country, Cody headed across the pond.
In the 1880s, at the urging of Mark Twain and to the delight of Europeans, Cody transported hundreds of workers, cowboys, vaqueros, 90 American Indians, buffalo, horses, Annie Oakley and the Deadwood Stage to England, Germany and other countries.
American reformers opposed employing Indians in such shows because the claimed it encouraged the “savages” to continue their primitive ways. These were the same do-gooders who sent Indian children to special schools where they were expected to dress and act as white men and were beaten for speaking native languages or holding on to sacred tokens. The Indians, many with starving families, were thrilled for the income and the chance to travel.
Some became bilingual, to the surprise of a New York Times reporter in France. He asked Black Horn, a Lakota chief, “Heap big Injun likum Paris?” Black Horn replied, “I think it might facilitate matters for you if I refer you to our interpreter.” The interpreter, another Lakoa, spoke English, French and German, along with his native tongue.
Europeans adored Buffalo Bill’s recreation of the Wild West. They were transfixed by displays of marksmanship, riding tricks and reenacted battles. But mostly, they fell in love with Indians themselves. Clubs sprang up in which Europeans who had never set foot in the Atlantic Ocean let alone crossed it, channeled their favorite warriors. Dressed in beaded vests, with moccasins on their feet, they took the names of Sitting Bull and Red Cloud or made up their own Indian monikers.
The Germans were so enamored with American Indians that the Nazis insisted that America’s Indian battles had made Native Americans enemies of the American government. The Nazis tried to enlist them in their cause. The Indians were staunchly patriotic, however, and some 25,000 of them served in the American forces in World War II.
Eventually the Wild West exhibitions played out in Europe. Buffalo Bill ended his shows in 1913, just a few years before he died in Denver. Over the years, the shows had evolved from battle recreation to cultural exhibits. By the time World War II came around, the Indians had packed up and gone home, but they left behind their leggings and vests, their war bonnets and moccasins, their breastplates and war clubs and their armbands and cuffs, selling them to European collectors.
In 1935, German butcher August Hermans acquired some 150 of these artifacts. He stored them for 70 years and, after Hermans’ death, they were purchased by Francois Chladiuk, who operates a Western shop in Brussels. This collection is the basis of “Lakota Performers In Europe.” The first half of the book is a factual, highly entertaining narrative of Wild West shows, written by Steve Friesen, director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave on Lookout Mountain, near Denver. The section is well illustrated with playbills, advertisements and photographs of Indians that were taken to be sold at the shows.
The remainder of the book is filled with stunning full-color photographs of the Hermans collection. Most of the items were made in the 20th century, and some were created especially for sale to tourists — a beaded bow tie, a picture frame and watch fobs, for instance. Most of the artifacts, however, were made for and used by the Indians themselves. Photographs show spectacular Indian apparel — eagle-feather war bonnets, quillwork and beaded breastplates, an animal tooth necklace, dozens of beaded moccasins, pipes and pipe bags and knife pouches.
“Lakota Performers in Europe” is not only an entertaining book but is also a contribution to the history of the Wild West’s greatest showman and the Indians who were his star performers.