This biography of William Cody focuses on his lifelong relationship with Plains Indians, a vital part of his life story that, surprisingly, has been seldom told.
Series: M.K. Brown Range Life Endowment, Number Twenty-one
Army scout, buffalo hunter, Indian fighter, and impresario of the world-renowned "Wild West Show," William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody lived the real American West and also helped create the "West of the imagination." Born in 1846, he took part in the great westward migration, hunted the buffalo, and made friends among the Plains Indians, who gave him the name Pahaska (long hair). But as the frontier closed and his role in "winning the West" passed into legend, Buffalo Bill found himself becoming the symbol of the destruction of the buffalo and the American Indian. Deeply dismayed, he spent the rest of his life working to save the remaining buffalo and to preserve Plains Indian culture through his Wild West shows.
This biography of William Cody focuses on his lifelong relationship with Plains Indians, a vital part of his life story that, surprisingly, has been seldom told. Bobby Bridger draws on many historical accounts and Cody's own memoirs to show how deeply intertwined Cody's life was with the Plains Indians. In particular, he demonstrates that the Lakota and Cheyenne were active cocreators of the Wild West shows, which helped them preserve the spiritual essence of their culture in the reservation era while also imparting something of it to white society in America and Europe. This dual story of Buffalo Bill and the Plains Indians clearly reveals how one West was lost, and another born, within the lifetime of one remarkable man.
Book of the Year in Biography & Autobiography Finalist
- Chapter One. The Rainbow Trail
- Chapter Two. The Scouts
- Chapter Three. The Pony Express
- Chapter Four. Destiny
- Chapter Five. The Indian Wars
- Chapter Six. Pahaska Becomes Buffalo Bill
- Chapter Seven. Chief of Scouts
- Chapter Eight. The Trail to Summit Springs
- Chapter Nine. Dime Novels
- Chapter Ten. Magicians from Mythology
- Chapter Eleven. Troding the Boards
- Chapter Twelve. The Duel with Yellow Hand
- Chapter Thirteen. Grandmother's Land
- Chapter Fourteen. The Wild West
- Chapter Fifteen. Grandmother England
- Chapter Sixteen. Arrows of Light
- Chapter Seventeen. Absaroka
- Chapter Eighteen. Pahaska Had a Strong Heart
"As a child one has a dream about life. As one grows up and out into life one tries to make the dream come true," she once said. "All of life is this endeavor to live that life of the dreaming child. What do we know of this strange and wonderful journey, from what to where?" Whatever her dream and journey, if she ever knew it, it may have begun with the Yellow Indian.
She saw him when she was taken by her nursemaid to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at the Crystal Palace. Trembling with excitement, she watched the doors of the arena open. Out rumbled the stagecoach behind its galloping horses. Then came the pursuing Indians, whooping and yelling, firing their guns, feathers in their warbonnets streaming as they raced around the arena. One of them, bareback on a pinto horse, rode at first sight into her undying memory. Seventy, eighty years later, she could still vividly recall his naked, slim young body painted bright lemon yellow. A creature of the wild, of limitless space and untrammeled freedom, he flashed everywhere like a lightning streak of lemon yellow before her. Like an archetypal image emerging from her dark unconsciousness to constellate the dream-image she was to pursue for a lifetime.
At the end of a wonderfully prolific and highly celebrated literary career, the late Frank Waters drew a striking portrait of the indelible impression a young Lakota warrior made in 1887 on the life and creative vision of his longtime friend, and sometimes neighbor, Lady Dorothy Brett. In his last book, Time and Change, published posthumously in 1998, Waters lovingly captures this seminal event in Lady Brett's life and, in doing so, offers a treasure trove of insight into the comprehensive impact of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West, particularly the dramatic, everlasting impressions made by Native Americans.
A cultural cross-pollination of mythic proportions occurred in 1887 when Buffalo Bill took center stage as part of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in London. An unprecedented congregation of European royalty had gathered to celebrate Victoria's half-century reign as the supreme sovereign of the British Empire. No one then could have predicted it would also be the last such gathering of global monarchies. Anxious to impress such an important assemblage and attract business, however, an aggressive group of American and British entrepreneurs organized a trade exposition from the United States to coincide with the Queen's celebration. Acutely aware of the romantic attraction of the European to the American West, these businessmen wisely chose to use Buffalo Bill's Wild West as the centerpiece of their exposition. Their efforts met with success when the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII, attended a performance and so thoroughly enjoyed himself that Cody promptly received notice ordering a command performance for the Queen.
Since the death of her companion, Prince Albert, twenty-five years earlier, Queen Victoria had not ventured beyond Buckingham Palace. If the Queen wanted entertainment, or anything else, it was brought to her at Windsor Castle. The Queen became intrigued,however, when it was explained to her that Buffalo Bill's Wild West was so massive a production that it could not be moved in its entirety to Buckingham Palace. Something then motivated Victoria to surprise everyone by suddenly deciding to break her quarter-century precedent and travel to Earl's Court arena to see for herself what had so impressed the Prince of Wales.
That spring afternoon was magnetically charged with historic occurrences and the lemon-yellow Lakota warrior struck like lightning, imprinting five-year-old Dorothy Brett, as Buffalo Bill and his Sioux companions rolled past like thunderheads that gather to bring terrifying, yet fascinating, electrical shocks from the heavens. Cody had choreographed his Wild West to begin with racing horsemen proudly circling the arena presenting the "Star-spangled Banner" in a "Grand Entry," a tradition that continues in rodeo today. Cody's colorful commencement of his Wild West made history on the afternoon of May 11, 1887. As Cody's cowboys raced past Her Majesty presenting "Old Glory," the supreme sovereign of the British Empire stood, and with a simple elegant bow, saluted the American Flag for the first time in history.
The Queen had a wonderful time and immediately requested a meeting with the Indian people in Cody's show. Black Elk later commented that the Queen addressed the Lakotas and told them they were the "best-looking people she had ever seen." The fact that the Queen immediately asked for a meeting with the Indians after the performance is an important indication of the magnetic attraction of the Lakota people in the Wild West. More importantly, however, the request to meet with the Lakota implies they were the Queen's favorite part of the presentation and the Queen's personal blessing that day instantly made Buffalo Bill's Wild West more than a mere American phenomenon; the success Cody enjoyed that afternoon introduced his Wild West as the world's premiere entertainment attraction. Another command performancewas promptly arranged in early June for the Queen's guests. The Queen's command performance of the Wild West was attended by more members of royalty than had ever gathered for a commercial entertainment event. The audience included the king of Belgium; the king of Saxony; the king of Greece, the king of Denmark; the crown prince and princess of Germany (he would soon become Kaiser Wilhelm II); the crown prince of Sweden and Norway; Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria; Prince George of Greece; the prince and princess of Saxe-Meiningen; Prince Louis of Baden; Princesses Margaret, Sophie, and Victoria of Prussia; the Prince and Princess of Wales; Princes Albert Victor and George of Wales (Prince George became King George V); and Princesses Victoria, Maude of Wales, Marie Victoria, and Alexandria of Edinburgh.
Cody had experience with royalty. His historic 1868 buffalo hunt with Russian Grand Duke Alexis and Lakota Chief Spotted Tail had taught him that European aristocrats loved a good thrill, particularly a vicarious thrill that involved Indians. In London, Cody loaded the Kings of Denmark, Greece, Belgium, and Saxony, and also the Prince of Wales on the Deadwood Stage and personally drove the coach around the arena as painted Sioux warriors chased behind whooping and shooting their rifles. Dorothy Brett was not the only child swept away that magic afternoon. The result of Cody's bold action was that the monarchs of Europe soon began to line up like little giggling children seeking carnival excitement riding the Deadwood Stage. Buffalo Bill had touched the child in the heart's of the sovereigns of Europe, thereby insuring his Wild West's success on the global stage for the next two decades.
Dorothy Brett was a precocious and impressionable five-year-old child in the midst of all this royal entertainment. Frank Waters details her impressive family lineage:
Her paternal grandfather was Viscount Esher, Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals and Queen Victoria's Master of the Rolls. Her maternal grandfather, a Belgian, put Leopold I on the throne and became his ambassador to the Court of St. James. Her own father, Reginald Baliol Brett, the second Viscount Esher, was Queen Victoria's personal advisor and was believed to be the power behind the throne of Edward VII. Her younger sister, Sylvia, became Lady Brooke, the Ranee of Sarawak. Without going into other ramifications, we can let the Ranee sum up the situation: "Being a child of the brilliant Reginald was like being related to the Encyclopedia Britannica."
The electric vision of the yellow Lakota warrior chasing Buffalo Bill as he drove the Deadwood Stage triggered something deep in young Dorothy's aesthetic instincts and she rebelled against the luxury and privilege in which she found herself and demanded to be allowed to become an artist. Ignoring the unspoken rule that forbade people of her aristocratic class from seeking artistic instruction, little Dorothy insisted upon being taught how to paint. Her inherent resolve eventually led her to training in Britain's Slade School of Art and the establishment of her own studio in Earl's Court. Brett's studio soon began to attract other painters, artists, writers and "free-thinkers" such as Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence. Brett's association with Lawrence would prove to be an important one: the writer put Brett's feet soundly on the spiritual and artistic path she began as a five-year-old child in the audience at Buffalo Bill's Wild West.
Believing western civilization to be doomed in materialism, American socialite, publisher, and "visionary colonist" Mabel Luhan Dodge had enticed D. H. Lawrence and other artists and philosophers to come to Taos, New Mexico, to explore the creation of an alternative artistic community in the tiny mountain village. Mabel Dodge had married a Taos Pueblo Indian, Tony Lujan, and the pair were actively attracting artists and thinkers to the ancient pueblo in order to seek new, alternative visions, which they hoped would rise from the ashes of the decline of western civilization. Lady Brett followed Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, to Taos in 1924. Over the next fifty-three years in Taos, generally not recognized or appreciated in the trendy art world, often nearly penniless, using outdoor "facilities" and hauling her own water from a creek, Dorothy Brett evolved into one of America's finest painters of Native American people. Indeed, Frank Waters, himself a mystic and scholar with a broad knowledge and understanding of the native cultures and religions of the Southwest, Mexico, and Central and South America, believed that Brett's paintings of ceremonial dancers at the Taos Pueblo create a body of work deeply concerned with the mysteries of the "other world," and that her highly developed artistic sensitivity and insight perfectly coincided with a mystical Indian perspective that remained vital during the time in which she painted, but has long since passed into history. Waters maintains that Brett's work captured the spiritual essence of that era in Taos at the precise moment of its passing. The Yellow Lakota's thunderbolt presence had somehow dramatically struck, imprinted and inspired five-year-old Dorothy Brett that May afternoon in 1887, mysteriously imbuing her with the promise of the perpetuation of significant Native American religious ceremony half a world away and nearly a century later.
With Buffalo Bill's Wild West as an intriguing connection, the story of Lady Dorothy Brett's evolution as a painter might be viewed as a curious parallel to that of Lakota Holy Man Black Elk and the archetypal vision he experienced as a child on the plains of South Dakota. Where Buffalo Bill's Wild West inspired Lady Dorothy Brett to leave European royalty and journey to North America to encounter and paint the religious ceremonies of Pueblo Indians, however, Black Elk's childhood vision led him to join Buffalo Bill's Wild West in order to travel to Europe to meet royalty and learn about the religion and culture of the washicu, or white man. He returned to the Great Plains in 1890 to survive the Massacre at Wounded Knee and to begin the promethean process of fusing Christianity and the Lakol Wicoh' an, or Lakota "way of life" into a new American religion.
Black Elk and Lady Brett are but two lives profoundly influenced by William F. Cody. Born into a quintessential American family of the migration across the Great Plains, Cody's destiny was, and forever remains, at the heart of western history; truly, few individuals have affected world culture and history and left such an indelible imprint on mankind as Buffalo Bill. As the horse and buffalo culture of the mystic warriors of the Great Plains vanished under the initial industrial onslaught of our modern technological society, Will Cody was uniquely gifted and, with deft historical timing, able to hold the past, present, and future in his hand for an evanescent, epochal moment. Cody used his abundant natural talents, charisma and command of the moment to create an exhibition of the immediate transition of eras in western American history, preserving something of their essence while entertaining the masses and virtually creating the twentieth-century concept of celebrity out of thin air. Before Buffalo Bill, individuals were merely famous or infamous; the well-known were royalty, military heroes, outlaws, or villains. After Buffalo Bill, we had "stars."
Pahaska is a Lakota word that means "long hair." As did most of the scouts of the American West of the nineteenth century, "Buffalo Bill" Cody wore his hair long. Cody, "Wild Bill" Hickok, and other famous scouts of the era were civilians conscripted and hired by the Army because of their intimate understanding of Plains Indian people and culture and for their working knowledge of the land itself. Pragmatically, politically, and stylistically emulating the mountain men and plainsmen such as Jim Bridger and Kit Carson who preceded them into theheart of North America, Cody and other scouts preferred beaded buckskin costumes and wore long hair in deference to native plains people who preferred not to cut theirs. The Plains Indian custom of wearing long hair initially had nothing to do with martial prowess; by the time young Will Cody appeared among the Lakota and Cheyenne in the 1850s, however, the "scalp-lock"—in the non-verbal, highly visual, and symbolic language of the warrior cultures of the Great Plains—had evolved into a badge that indicated an honorable and dangerous opponent, one who would willingly offer his proud mane to anyone powerful enough to take it in battle. Long hair was the victor's trophy.
Lakota people started calling Will Cody Pahaska early in his preadolescent career on the Great Plains as he was interacting with them at Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger and had already begun to grow his hair long. Thereafter and throughout his life, Cody spoke with great pride of his Indian name and the showman even named his retreat in the Absaroka Mountains of Yellowstone Country "Pahaska's Tepee."
I believe the name Pahaska offers special insight into William Frederick Cody; it reveals his unique bond with the Plains Indians fused long before the fame and celebrity of "Buffalo Bill" swept him away. Similarly, the name offers a glimpse into the Plains Indians' friendly, personal relationship with young Will Cody, as with other non-Indians, before the invasion of the cultures of the world into North America's heart so devastated them. Peaceful relations between native people and immigrants then were often accompanied by a sense of shared goals and purposes. The death of his father created circumstances that forced young Will Cody to go to work before he even reached adolescence. Working on bullwacker freight wagon trains, Cody crossed the Great Plains three times before his twelfth birthday. Because of the unusual circumstances of his youth, most of Cody's actual boyhood companions and playmates were the Lakota children he met at places like Fort Laramie in the heart of the Oglalas' traditional hunting lands. Some of these boyhood companions, such as Rain-In-The-Face's sons, became lifelong friends. The fact that these friendships endured and survived the Indian Wars, when their friendship suddenly spun them around and cast them as mortal enemies, reveals an unusually powerful relationship. I believe Cody's enduring friendly relationship with Sioux people and his subsequent rise to international fame strongly suggests Lakota mysticism and prophecy at work.
Lakota philosopher Vine DeLoria, Jr. writes:
In tribal religions there is always an open expectation that revelations will and can be received. Much of this expectation is a result of the ceremonies which produce visions or dreams that provide information and predictions about the future. When the universe is conceived as one in which interspecies communication becomes possible, and is probable given the proper set of circumstances, revelation is a major part of religious practice. Within the tribal setting, however, revelation is not regarded as an unusual situation and so it does not suggest the correction of doctrine or the promulgation of any new belief, or the adjustment of the existing understanding and experience of cosmic reality. It at best clarifies the meaning of life and religious experience for individuals who have undertaken to open themselves to receive whatever messages are intended for them which deal with social responsibilities they must assume, powers of healing and prophecy they must demonstrate, or vocations they must follow.
Cody shared a destiny with the buffalo and Plains Indians; indeed, one cannot utter William F. Cody's immortal alliterated sobriquet without conjuring buffalo. Indians and buffalo are symbiotically related both metaphorically and in reality. Buffalo Bill, Lakota Indians, and buffalo are forever linked in American legend and mythology. The world generally recognizes the fact that Cody's Wild West had a dramatic and abiding influence on the shape and character of American mythology through his imaginative creation of the concept of the theatrical form of the "Western." Indeed, most of us now readily accept the fact that the west we love to romanticize is largely, as historian William Goetzmann recently referred to it, "the West of the imagination." The west, however, has always been about the imagination— and spirit. Certainly one of humanity's greatest epics revealed itself in North America as the imagination and spirit of the European reacted dramatically different to the environment than did the imagination and spirit of the Native American. William F. Cody's Wild West, blending the imagination and spirit of both cultures, constructed a unique bridge between the Native and Euroamerican, and, in doing so, created mythology. Nevertheless, it is vitally important to differentiate between Cody's creation of the genre of the Western, the "West of the imagination," and the West of historical fact. It is historical fact that the "Wild West" Cody presented was indeed a meticulous physical recreation of actual historical events. Cody, sharply defining and separating his production from carnivals and circuses, refused to refer to his creation as a "show;" instead, he proudly considered himself unique, a master historical reenactor. Cody carefully and lovingly recreated western events that had only recently passed or were passing into history at just that moment. Thus, ironically, Cody's contribution to American mythology was based more upon historical reality than romantic imagination. This dichotomy presents only a tiny bit of the complexity one encounters when attempting to pigeonhole William F. Cody according to modern standards for mythology, history, war, human rights, environmentalism or anything else. Nonetheless, most today are quick to dismiss Buffalo Bill as a somewhat important relic from an embarrassing and shameful era in our history. For example: In modern ahistorical, yet sentimentally romantic America, it has become socially and academically accepted to view Buffalo Bill's Wild West as exploitative of Indians. This uninformed perspective is a sad indictment of many remaining negative aspects of Euroamerican collective guilt concerning anything that happened between our ancestors and Native Americans. Understanding the unique relationship between Plains Indians and Will Cody, however, could prove to be the beginning of healing some of this confusion. Assuming that Cody was exploiting Indians, one fails to take into account the words and actions of many important, eloquent Lakota leaders such as Holy Man, Black Elk, and philosopher Luther Standing Bear, who were an integral part of Cody's production and who articulately recorded their high personal opinion of Buffalo Bill's character in books and essays they wrote. Even more significant, however, is that in assuming Cody was exploiting Indians, one loses the ability to understand the important contribution of Indians to American show business. To some, this contribution to show business may appear to be a dubious honor; yet I imagine these same cynics would readily concede the enduring artistic impact of the western genre on cinema. Without Native American contributions to the genesis of the form in Cody's Wild West, western movies simply would not exist. Most seriously, however, in assuming Cody was exploiting Native Americans, one also fails to gain a basic knowledge of the fundamentally significant roles Indians played in the creation of an important design in the fabric of American mythology.
If, on the other hand, one assumes that Cody and the Lakota were cocreating the Wild West, an entirely different perspective presents itself, and some intriguing aspects of Cody's life begin to reveal themselves. For example, for many years, I wondered how on earth Cody, a military scout, was able to convince Lakota warriors, who had only recently been his mortal enemies on the battlefield, to come together time and time again in order to recreate their combat in minute detail in an arena before an audience of thousands of people. Considering what we now understand about post\-traumatic stress syndrome, or what folks called shell shock from the time of the First World War up through the Vietnam conflict, Cody's ability to recreate battlefield situations with the actual participants indicates almost superhuman abilities to inspire and lead men. When one reconsiders Cody's relationship with Plains Indians from the perspective of an active cocreation of the Wild West, however, one also begins to reexamine Cody's lifelong relationship with the Lakota and a new perspective of Buffalo Bill emerges.
As we approach a new millenium, "politically correct" hindsight reveals the irony that a man renowned for killing buffalo for the Kansas Pacific Railroad in the 1860s was also a vital part of the visionary team responsible for preserving and restoring buffalo in the 1890s when fewer than five hundred remained. At that nadir. a vital genetic reservoir of buffalo were well-cared for in the Wild West when Cody's good friend, Buffalo Jones, began using animals from the showman's herd as breeding stock to begin a serious restoration plan. As a result of Buffalo Jones and Cody's inspired restoration efforts, most of the major buffalo herds that remain in America today were spawned from the healthy animals in Buffalo Bill's Wild West at the turn of the century.
Considering Cody's reputation as an "Indian fighter," examination of history reveals yet another intriguing irony: Cody was indeed a scout for the famous Fifth Cavalry at various times from 1868-76, and he killed several important Indian leaders during this time of intense conflict. Yet from the beginning of the "Reservation and Reconstruction Era" in Native and Euroamerican relations in the early 1880s, Buffalo Bill's Wild West offered a paradoxical sanctuary for those "incorrigibles" who resisted as traditional Plains Indian religion and culture were being systematically dismantled and destroyed. Indeed, from its inception in Omaha on May 19, 1883, until it was auctioned into history in Denver on July 21, 1913, Buffalo Bill's Wild West became the major, if not the only, defender of the inherent sovereign rights of Indian people.
I do not believe these ironic occurrences happened by accident. Having spent thirty-five years exploring the culture and religion of the native western tribes in order to write A Ballad of the West, I have personally experienced the amazing powers of precognition some Lakotas possess. Carefully combing through the known history of William F. Cody's life for important patterns of possible "occult" interaction with Indians, one begins to recognize that the man's entire life was shaped by mysterious, yet pragmatic, connections with Indians. Complicating the mystery, as his contemporary Plains Indian warrior friends and foes, Cody seems to have flourished in some inexplicable way from man-to-man, hand-to-hand, mortal conflict. As his Lakota and Cheyenne counterparts, Cody's early career military victory brought the immediate reward of superior horses. Yet, of paramount importance, victory also brought with it honor and respect. This intriguing bond through mortal combat between Cody and Plains Indians becomes very important when considering the fact that thirteen months after the Battle of Little Big Horn he was able to hire Oglala Lakotas from Pine Ridge to travel to Rochester, New York, to be in his fall melodrama. At first glance, this information seems incongruous. Crazy Horse's Oglala Lakota forces had been the leaders of the Plains Indian Confederacy and its most violent resistance to the military invasion by the U.S. government. Especially considering the brief period of time following the major conflict of Native and Euroamerican forces in history, one would suspect the Oglala Lakotas to be the very last people in the world that Buffalo Bill would seek to act in a melodrama. Nevertheless, unlike Sheridan, Crook, and other military leaders of the United States War Department, Cody had spent his entire life living with the Lakota. As a victorious warrior, Cody knew he could go to Pine Ridge and be greeted honorably. That he also knew he could cast Indians for his melodrama reveals the absolute faith he had in the lifelong bonds he had established and nourished with the Lakota. Earning the respect of Lakota warriors, however, would never insure any Oglala's agreeing to be in a melodrama with Buffalo Bill; the fact that the Oglalas willingly went to participate in the show with Cody implies either the skill of a master salesman, or complete Lakota confidence in a trusted friend. It is unlikely that a people who were willing to die to defend their land and who had walked away from the best hagglers the United States could send to negotiate treaties would fall victim to a master salesman. Something other than show business was clearly going on between Buffalo Bill and the Lakota. If, during and after the years of the Indian Wars, Cody won the faith and trust of any Lakota, it would have to have been on a spiritual level. Clearly, the Lakotas either knew on a spiritual level that Cody had their best interests in mind, or they knew Cody planned for them would ultimately prove to be for the spiritual good of their people and nation.
Physical needs also had to be met for the Lakota people to continue. In hiring and defending Indians, Cody helped them gain an understanding of the white man's economic concept of employment, working for wages, and learning how to manage their money. He also provided the Indians with a rare alternative to their Christian and military overseers' deadly plan for assimilating them into the Euroamerican world: The Wild West allowed the Indian to enter the white man's world on his own terms. Furthermore, as Plains Indian leaders such as Sitting Bull and Black Elk visited the economic capitals of western civilization and met the general public as well as socialites, religious leaders, and monarchs, Buffalo Bill presented them as the respected Chiefs and Holy Men they were. As a result of Buffalo Bill's insistence that Indians be granted this simple respect and courtesy, leaders were able to leave profound impressions of their inherent dignity and intelligence with Euroamericans and return to their people with a much more realistic understanding of the culture of their temporary conquerors. More importantly, as missionaries and military and government agents rapidly went about their insidious work of attempting the destruction of Plains Indian civilization with religious conversion and reconstruction, Buffalo Bill's Wild West also became the unlikely vehicle from which those same essentials of Plains Indians religion and culture were able to survive and endure. Only the Indians rivaled Cody for space in the programs. Since the Indians in Buffalo Bill's Wild West were leaders of their people, their very presence brought prestige to the show. The names of Indian leaders, such as Iron Tail, Curly, Red Shirt, and American Horse, had been in the newspapers often enough for the public to have heard of them. Cody also used his programs in an attempt to educate whites to the true nature of Indians. In 1893 Cody had an insert placed in the Wild West program pleading for the humane treatment of Indians. In the insert he defended them as good soldiers, farmers and citizens when given a chance.
It is important here to emphasize that many of the Indians in Buffalo Bill's Wild West were leaders of their people. There was a physical reason that Indian military, social, religious, and political leaders, who were prisoners-of-war, were in Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Red Cloud, Kicking Bear, Short Bull, Sitting Bull, Rain-In-The-Face, and other "troublemakers" were encouraged by Indian agents and missionaries to join the Wild West in order to get them out of the way of the conversion and reconstruction process. With the leaders out of the way, the people incarcerated on reservations were more easily manipulated. While depicting their traditional "vanishing" culture in the Wild West exhibition, however, Cheyenne and Lakota leaders were able to imprint many fundamentally important aspects of their culture's spiritual essence into mainstream Euroamerican society while relatives on reservations were forming secret, underground versions of sacred ceremonies to reunite and renew themselves. Modern stereotypes and cliche images of American Indians such as tepees, peace pipes, Eagle-feather warbonnets, and the general accouterments and icons of Plains Indian culture reveal the enduring cultural imprint these Native American leaders created and presented in Buffalo Bill's Wild West. The resurgence of Plains Indian religion and culture in the past half-century is yet another silent testament to the powerful legacy of these people's preservation efforts during the reconstruction era.
After Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, perhaps the most significant of these "incorrigibles" was the Lakota Holy Man Black Elk, who, as mentioned here earlier, was able to return from the Wild West with the broadened perspective needed to help his people make the transition into white, Christian culture with the essential values of the Plains Indian religion intact. The Holy Man's important childhood vision of a reunification of the world's sacred hoop, presented to him by six omnipotent Grandfathers, has so risen in stature in the past seventy years that modern Indians have come to view Black Elk Speaks as a religious representation of reunification of Indian people themselves. In the introduction to a reprinting of Neihardt's book in 1979, Vine DeLoria wrote:
If any great religious classic has emerged in this century or on this continent, it must certainly be judged in the company of Black Elk Speaks.... The most important aspect of the book, however, is not its effect on the non-Indian populace who wished to learn something of the beliefs of the Plains Indians but upon the contemporary generation of young Indians who have been aggressively searching for roots of their own in the structure of universal reality. To them the book has become a North American bible of all tribes.
As the Wild West concluded its tour of England in 1887, however, Black Elk and several Lakota companions missed the boat and were left behind. One of the stranded Lakotas spoke a little English, and the group managed to get themselves to London and employed in a little western show that had sprung up to capitalize on the Wild West's success. Captain Mexican Joe Shelley, inspired by Buffalo Bill's success in London, had organized a "copy" show to compete with the Wild West. In July, 1887, "Mexican Joe's Wild West" departed for England. Somehow the little copy show ended up in Europe before it eventually broke up, leaving Black Elk stranded. Always curious, Black Elk visited western civilization's grand cathedrals and monasteries to begin his personal study of Christianity and the other classic religions of the world. During his European sojourn, as he encountered the many diverse people and religions of the world, Black Elk finally began to understand the enigmatic voices he had been hearing all his life. In Europe, Black Elk started to understand the meaning of the power vision he received as a boy; he began to understand more of the reasons for the conflict his people had endured; and, looking toward the survival of his people, their culture and their religion, he began the process of assimilating all the world's religions into his Plains Indian religion. Buffalo Bill returned to Europe in 1890 and, after a bit of searching, found Black Elk ill in Paris and helped nurse him back to health before giving the holy man a reunion feast and the money to return home.
Black Elk returned to the Great Plains at an extremely tumultuous time. On the reservation, the Lakota were starving and facing the complete destruction of their race. Incarcerated and confused, the Lakota were at the mercy of overseers who, at worst, deemed them subhuman, and, at best, cold statistics in a cruel evangelical effort. As a result of such desperate times, the Ghost Dance religion emerged throughout Indian Country. It is important here to emphasize that the Ghost Dance rose only three years into the reconstruction efforts of missionaries and government agents on reservations. It is equally relevant that the Ghost Dance movement was a prophetic movement; a "Messiah" was prophesized! The fact that the Ghost Dance is so obviously inspired by a desperate, and ultimately deadly, attempt by Native America to embrace the white man's Christianity only makes the massacre at Wounded Knee more tragic.
Since the beginning of relations between Native and Euroamericans, there had been two major factions—military and religious—leading the imperialistic thrust of western civilization into the heart of the North American continent. With the murder of Crazy Horse, and with Sitting Bull in exile in Canada, armed resistance against the United States by Native American forces truly ended in 1877. When Sitting Bull returned to the United States in 1882 and surrendered his rifle, the military faction finally claimed victory over the Sioux. The conquest of the Lakota by the United States War Department was complete when defeated Plains Indians were herded onto reservations. The success of the military faction incarcerating Indians on reservations provided the religious faction with the evangelist's dream: a captive audience. Christian missionary efforts were shifted into high gear with the ultimate objective of completely disassembling and obliterating any vestiges of Indian religion or culture in North America. Well-intentioned but callous zealots, the missionaries proposed to convert Native America into assimilated Christian farmers and businessmen within one generation. The children and grandchildren of abolitionists, many "friends of the Indian" were Quakers, Catholics, Episcopalians, or members of other Christian denominations; after their forefathers freed the slaves, these missionaries viewed the protection of Native Americans from the United States military as the continuation of a social burden they had inherited. Emerging from the Civil War, many Christian leaders had had their fill of death and suffering; these survivors exercised considerable diplomatic political influence, albeit futile, as the Indian Wars escalated toward Little Big Horn. Their time of influence returned, however, when Indian reconstruction began on the reservation. Missionaries were sent to the reservations to begin the process of converting Indians into Christians and farmers. During this time, many Indian children were taken into white society to be educated. Luther Standing Bear wrote in 1933:
When I had reached young manhood the warpath for the Lakota was a thing of the past. The hunter had disappeared with the buffalo, the war scout had lost his calling, and the warrior had taken his shield to the mountains and given it back to the elements. The victory songs were sung only in the memory of the braves, and even they soon went unsung under a cruel and senseless ban of our overseers. So I could not prove that I was a brave and would fight to protect my home and land. I could only meet the challenge as life's events came to me. When I went East to Carlisle School, I thought I was going there to die; nevertheless, when father confronted me with the question, "Son, do you want to go far away with these white people?," I unhesitatingly said, "Yes." I could think of white people wanting little Lakota children for no other possible reason than to kill them, but I thought here is my chance to prove that I can die bravely. So I went east to show my father and my people that I was brave and willing to die for them. I was destined, however, to return to my people, though half of my companions remained in the east in their graves. The changes in environment, food, and clothing were too sudden and drastic for even staunch bravery to overcome.
The Carlisle School, which Standing Bear went east to attend, was created by Captain Richard Henry Pratt. From 1875-78, Captain Pratt had been in charge of seventy-two Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche prisoners-of-war interned at Fort Marion, Florida. During the confinement Pratt created an educational program for the Indians and, after their release, seventeen of his prisoners/students enrolled in Hampton Institute. Created by General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who had risen through the ranks during the Civil War commanding a Negro brigade, Hampton Institute had been established in Virginia as a vocational school for Negroes. In April, 1878, Pratt's seventeen core students at Hampton Institute constituted the genesis of a national Indian educational program. Later, with 82 students recruited from Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations to a deserted army barracks in Pennsylvania, Pratt created the Carlisle School for Indians. Indian children were gathered up in the Dakotas and shipped off to Pennsylvania, where they were stuffed into white man's clothes, had their hair cut and were not allowed to speak their native language. For many the drastic change in clothing, custom, diet and environment was too much to tolerate and they fell victim to disease and died.
Some might say Pratt's Carlisle School succeeded at great human costs in becoming a bridge between the two cultures. Others might say such a massive undertaking always extracts a great human toll. In the final analysis, however, many brilliant Indian people, such as the Lakota philosopher Luther Standing Bear, received a first-class education at Carlisle Indian School.Through their education into the Euroamerican world at Carlisle, these Indian thinkers have been able to build their own bridge between our cultures.
Many altruistic missionaries such as Elaine Goodale also traveled to the reservation to educate Indians during this time. Some of these missionaries were true servants of spirit, humanitarians genuinely concerned that the Indian people, their religion and culture continue to exist. Those with compassion in their hearts found themselves undergoing great change on the reservation, however, and Miss Goodale, and many others like her, essentially converted to the Plains Indian culture. Miss Goodale married a Lakota, Dr. Charles Eastman, and dedicated her life to the service of Indian people on the reservation. She became known as a "Sister to the Sioux."
In summary, however, the military faction of the Euroamerican thrust into the heart of the continent was poised for complete genocide if the reconstruction efforts of the religious factions failed to assimilate Indians. So, with the final destruction of Native American culture and religion ironically in the hands of United States religious leaders, it appeared the Euroamericans' victory was complete. As Native American culture and religion faced resolute obliteration, however, one man stood, squarely between these two destructive forces. That man was Buffalo Bill.
Indian performers in Buffalo Bill's Wild West were literally prisoners-of-war. As the "humanitarian" reconstruction of Indians into a Christian farmers and businessmen intensified on the reservation, Cody was forced to jump through increasingly difficult bureaucratic hoops created by these same Christian and political humanitarians. Only Cody's enduring and trusted relationships with the most powerful men in the War Department allowed him to win permission to continue employing Indians in his Wild West. During most of the history of the Wild West, Christian politicians viciously fought Cody, bitterly accusing him of exhibiting the savage, warlike aspects of the Indian, thereby contradicting and belittling the progressive advances made by the Indian into Euroamerican religion and culture. In 1893 these "humanitarian" forces succeeded in preventing Cody's Wild West from being staged within the main grounds of the Chicago World's Fair. Cody simply rented a nearby location and he and the Lakotas outdrew the World's Fair.
Reconsidering Cody and Plains Indians as cocreators of the Wild West and recognizing Buffalo Bill's unique role defending Plains Indians and buffalo when both faced extinction, led me to an intriguing, new perspective on Buffalo Bill: What if William F. Cody rose to international fame as Buffalo Bill as part of a broader knowledge and understanding of future events by Lakota prophets? Could Buffalo Bill have been part of Lakota prophecy, and, if so, might he have risen to his unique fame in order to stand heroically between violent, destructive forces and Native Americans and buffalo at the precise historical moment for them to have time and sanctuary to survive and endure? As mentioned earlier, the Sioux possessed a mysterious ability that was accepted as normal Lakol wicoh'an, or the traditional way of life to Lakota people. Where this ability was considered normal to a nineteenth century Lakota, modern, empirical thinkers rarely consider, eagerly dismiss, or fail to explore the documented Lakota ability to see into the future. Luther Standing Bear writes, "There were some who had the power of 'wakinyan'—the power of great intuition and ability to foretell events." Standing Bear proceeds to tell a story of a friend named Walk Ahead who possessed such wakinyan powers. Walk Ahead offered Standing Bear a gentle warning not to return to England for a second trip with Buffalo Bill. Ignoring the admonition, Standing Bear departed Pine Ridge for Rushville to sign up with the Wild West and catch the train headed east. In Rushville, based upon his previous experience with the Wild West, Standing Bear was placed in charge of the Lakota people joining the troupe. Soon two young Lakota men who, having already signed on, came to Standing Bear to ask him for permission not to go with the show. As most young Lakota men were eager to go with the Wild West, Standing Bear was naturally curious as to why these young men had decided not to go. The young men then spoke of a concurrent dream they both had of a terrible crash. The dream startled and awakened them both simultaneously from a sound sleep. The dream had been so real both young men were shocked to emerge from their tepee to discover a quiet, starlit prairie night. They promptly interpreted the dream as an omen not to go with the Wild West. Standing Bear excused the young men and promptly signed on two others who were eager to quickly take their place. One of these young replacements later died in the accident prophesized in the young men's dream. In the east, as the Wild West train stood still, it was rammed by another train moving at full speed. The car containing the Lakotas was horribly torn and mangled and many Indian people were killed or terribly injured. Standing Bear himself was so badly injured that he nearly died. Star Wild West performer, Annie Oakley, never fully recovered. Afterwards, Standing Bear returned to the reservation and politely acknowledged Walk Ahead's warning.
Those Lakota with wakinyan power received it directly from the wakinyan spirits themselves. The wakinyan, "Thunder Beings," are spirits that hold one of the most revered places in Lakota mythology and religion. The Thunder Beings dwell in the ethers and manifest themselves in the magnificent, electric thunderheads and hailstorms of the Great Plains. According to Black Elk, the Thunder Beings possess the omnipotent power to "make live and destroy." Indeed, the Thunder Beings are the divine initiators of the central religious ceremony of the Lakota—the Sun Dance. As part of the Lakota creation myth, a selfish chief, a man who did not know how to share with the people, had his arm stolen and hung in the stars by the wakinyans. The chief's daughter announced that she would only marry the man who can return her father's arm. "Falling Star," a divine being recognized as the "Savior" of the Lakota, appeared, and, accepting the daughter's challenge, went on a successful quest to return the chief's hand. Ceremoniously reenacting the intercommunication between the divine and humans, the Sun Dance Ritual evolves from this creation myth as the Dancers emulate the Falling Star's heroic quest to return fertility and charity to the people.
Black Elk himself was granted his great intuitive powers by the wakinyan. All of his life Black Elk lived in great fear that the thunder-beings were disappointed and angry with him for not responding to their calls and fulfilling the prophecy of his childhood power vision. Throughout his youth, Black Elk wrestled with voices calling him from the spirit world to gradually introduce and educate him to his precognitive abilities. As mentioned earlier in this prologue, Vine DeLoria's remarks about Black Elk Speaks evolving into an "American Indian Bible" suggest that such important spiritual matters present themselves to men in their own time and circumstance. This inherent understanding of spiritual matters unfolding in the course of time is also very much a characteristic of Lakol wicoh 'an. Dr. Charles Eastman, a Lakota separated from his people to be educated during the reconstruction era, was graduated from Dartmouth University in 1887. Dr. Eastman received a medical degree from Boston University in 1890, becoming one of the very first American Indian doctors. His first assignment was the Pine Ridge Reservation. Eastman arrived at Pine Ridge in December, 1890, just in time to witness the horror of the final bloodletting of the Indian Wars at the Massacre at Wounded Knee. As Black Elk returned from Paris in time to be nearly killed defending women and children at Wounded Knee, Eastman returned to his people to become the doctor attempting to save the wounded and dying brought into the church near the site of the massacre. After experiencing the horror of Wounded Knee, Black Elk, who possessed the wakinyan power "to make live and destroy," turned away from the power "to destroy" and toward the power to "make live" through the creation of a new religion. Equally impacted by thehorror of the massacre, Dr. Eastman published eleven books, all with the fundamental goal of bringing Native and Euroamericans together. He published his first book, Indian Boyhood, in 1902 and, as the first major Native American author, went on to become one of the most respected Native Americans in the country. In his 1911 book, The Soul of the Indian, Eastman wrote:
It is well known that the American Indian had somehow developed occult power, and although in the latter days there have been many imposters, and, allowing for the vanity and weakness of human nature, it is fair to assume that there must have been some even in the old days, yet there are well-attested instances of remarkable prophesies and other mystic practice. "A Sioux prophet predicted the coming of the white man fully fifty years before the event, and even described accurately his garments and weapons. Before the steamboat was invented, another prophet of our race described the "Fire Boat" that would swim upon their mighty river, the Mississippi, and the date of this prophecy is attested by the term used, which is long since obsolete.
Once, upon learning I had written a song about Red Cloud, a young man from South Africa exclaimed, "Ain't he the one that was bulletproof?" perfectly proving my point of the general global awareness of the Plains Indians' knowledge of the occult. Indeed, libraries are full of well-documented accounts of Plains Indian leaders such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Roman Nose and their inexplicable powers to avoid being shot in battle. Both Indian and non-Indian people have eloquently recalled in detail how these and other Lakota and Cheyenne leaders would often announce that they could not be harmed by bullets before racing alone unscathed into and through a hail of rifle fire by well-trained American soldiers. Even though I think this ability suggests an occult talent somewhat different from prophecy, it nevertheless represents an inscrutable mystical ability of the Plains Indian to control physical events.
In a lifetime of amazing demonstrations of precognitive ability, Sitting Bull prophesized a phenomenally accurate description of the Battle of the Little Big Horn only days before the actual event occurred. In constant communication with animals, particularly birds, Sitting Bull told his followers in Canada in 1882 that a meadowlark prophesized his death at the hands of his own people. Sitting Bull was murdered by his own people on December 15, 1890. Stanley Vestal offers this glimpse into the medicine man's prophetic ability: Having been out searching for enemy camps for several days, some chiefs ordered scouts to intensify the search. As they waited for the scouts to return, some of the Lakotas grew impatient and, aware of Sitting Bull's prophetic powers, went to the Hunkpapa and asked him to divine what was going to happen:
Sitting Bull said, "I will try to find out something."
He walked away from the crowd some distance, and walked up and down singing. They could hear him singing, but he was too far away for his words to be understood. After a while he came back. They had a pipe ready to light waiting for him.
Sitting Bull lighted the pipe and smoked. When he had finished, he said, "In the smoke I see a battle within two days. Many enemies and several Sioux will be killed." After a few moments, he added: "When I was out there singing, I saw a little ball of fire—a spark—coming toward me. But it disappeared when it reached me." The warriors all knew what the spark meant: it was a sign that Sitting Bull was going to be wounded.