“Cowboys and Indians” – The Roots of a Repressive Legacy

By: Kara Kennedy

In the mid-1800, newcomers and settlers were dispersing throughout North America (ne Turtle Island), treaties were becoming established and the Indigenous people of North American had permanently become displaced from their traditional territories and lifestyles. Concurrent to these changing paradigms for Indigenous people, the ideal was spreading that the Indigenous people of North America would soon be extinguished. Thus developing a mentality within the settler population of needing to preserve the image of the “vanishing Indian” (Bernardin, 1995).

In 1882, Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Cody hosted the a show similar to what is now “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” to commemorate the Forth of July within a small settler town in Nebraska. This show became known as the first rodeo and the ideal of what is now known as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”.

“Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show shortly became one of the most popular and successful touring show of all time. Within the show groups such as the United States military and the Indigenous people of the Plain and Prairie lands were depicted. The show would include circus-like roping tricks, and rodeo-like stunts that were drawn upon the current horse-culture at the time.

Indigenous actor depicting Chief Sitting Bull and Colonel "Buffalo Bill" Cody

Within the “Wild West” shows, European settlers and Buffalo Bill himself through different scenarios were glorified, and the Indigenous people were viewed as villains or “bad guys”. Each show included a scenario of an Indian attack on a settler wagon train, home, deadwood stagecoach and a depiction of the Battle of Little Bighorn. All of these attacks made by Indigenous people upon settlers, and all of these attacks except the Battle of Little Bighorn were saved by Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Cody and other settlers. By these depictions “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show initiated and reinforced violent negative Indigenous stereotypes. Some of these stereotypes still prevail within society today.

At the time of the late 1880’s rodeos became public events that consisted of prizes awarded to those with the best horse and roping skills. In 1888 Prescott, Arizona hosted the first Rodeo that consisted of prizes. This initiated a legacy of horse-culture that would impact both settler and indigenous societies. Both Indigenous and settler societies participated within rodeos, however was more acceptable and easier for those within the settler society, as institutionalized racism at the time was quite ramped. Commonly “Wild West” shows and exhibitions incorporated “pan-Indigenous” iconography and imagery. Revealing attire, Indigenous women performing in non-traditional revealing attire, and sometimes and still today an Indigenous-themed “Grand Entries” at times initiates rodeo proceedings.

Indigenous people entering Rodeo grounds as a "Grand Entry", this depiction initiates rodeo proceedings

Although the Indigenous people of the plains did not traditionally use horses, as the Spaniards in early contact brought them. The people of the plains quickly adapted the using horses, as they made life easier and become an economic tool. During late 1800’s and early 1990’s, the culture of Wild West shows and rodeos was a large portion of the economy and included substantial number of Indigenous involvement. As mentioned in Cogewea: The Half-Breed, the economy of the characters and the location of the story was largely based on the ranch and the horse-culture. One of the characters, Jim LaGrinder was a former star of the “Wild West” show, however within the novel is the  foreman of the H-B ranch (Dove, 1927).

Despite the “Wild West” shows and rodeos portraying Indigenous people negatively, the horse culture prevails within Indigenous societies. As some Indigenous gatherings are combined with rodeos, and other horse-culture events. However, indignifying portrayal of Indigenous people are no longer a portion of the show. Therefore showing how the tensions between the settler society and Indigenous people has improved over the years, becoming inclusive and how Indigenous people are taking over the power dimension and reclaiming how their identity is portrayed to the public.

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