“‘Real Live’ Indian”: Sitting Bull’s Performance of Self in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

Scott Magelssen, Heidi L. Nees


@font-face { font-family: "Times"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } Between 1883 and 1916, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West spectacles constructed America as a site of struggle between the nation’s “Manifest Destiny” of westward expansion and those “savage” bodies that stood in the way. This essay treats Cody’s incorporation of real Native Peoples into the Wild West as a strategy to establish authenticity in spectators’ perception. In particular, it explores the Native individuals’ own performance, particularly that of Dakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, as they negotiated the representation of self under the gaze of those spectators. As such, we join an ongoing conversation on the politics of Native representation and agency in wild west shows. We add to the conversation, however, by suggesting, through a lens informed by theatre and performance studies, that while Sitting Bull’s appearance as an “authentic” war chief may have served as a foil to Buffalo Bill as American Hero, affirming Cody’s performative brand of Manifest Destiny, his presence in the arena throughout the 1884-85 season contested Manifest Destiny by negotiating and asserting, however small, his agency and autonomy as a subject. In this manner, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West became a counter site to a mythical American West where Native performers could use their “spectacular” status to tactically operate within a changing political field of ethnic stereotypes and oppression.

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