Everything Historical Is Yours, Bill
by GABRIEL MILNER
Buffalo Bill and the Indians
When the show’s over, Buffalo Bill takes off his wig; in his palatial campgrounds tent he riddles his furniture and fine art with bullets, shooting at the ghosts of the Indians whose massacre his Wild West show mythologizes; in his more lucid moments he cavorts with a zaftig, self-important alto soprano; and he holds forth with a pretty, petite gunslinger named Annie Oakley at his side.
None of this, as portrayed in Buffalo Bill and the Indians or, Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, is inaccurate. Quite the contrary. By 1886, the year of the film’s unfolding, Col. William F. Cody was no longer the man his ex-wife Louisa would describe in her 1919 memoirs—“tall and straight, … his hair was jet black and his features finely molded, and his eyes clear and sharp, determined and yet kindly, with a twinkle in them."
Cody was, instead, a graying, besotted performer whose wig seemed the last vestige of his youthful frontier self. He still rode and shot for an audience, but was also an adept businessman, later to have stakes in the Cody-Dyer Mining and Milling Company of Oracle, AZ; the Buffalo Bill Oil and Gas Co. of Cody, WY; and the Cody & Salsbury Canal, on the Big Horn Basin.
In the course of a year’s worth of research I haven’t found any evidence that he ran off the rails and shot at dead Indians. (Indeed, historians have praised the living conditions he provided for his Native American players, who often faired better under his aegis than on the reservation). But of course, for the millions of Americans and Europeans who saw his show over its decades-long run, the trope of white men defeating marauding red men did its work in the cultural imagination.
Like his affairs d’amour with the diva, Buffalo Bill indulged in a preoccupation with cultural legitimacy. "I have long had a desire to visit England," he once wrote to Gen. Nelson Miles, former head of the Military Division, but have been deterred from doing so by the thought that I may be classed among the many imposters who have gone before me, claiming to be Scouts and Frontiersmen. I wish to be treated like a gentleman by those that I may meet over there and as it is possible that I may make the trip in the near future I would like to add your testimony to the credentials I am securing from other distinguished officials that I am the veritable W.F. Cody known as Buffalo Bill and have acted as Scout and Guide for you.
And Annie Oakley was, historically, a stone-cold fox:
Buffalo Bill and the Indians is not about Buffalo Bill and the Indians, though. As it subtitle suggests, it is about being haunted by the past, the tape-loop of memories that come in and out like the film’s intro music, the diva’s aria, the Indian drumming.
As Sitting Bull’s specter prowls his pleasure-tent, Cody is forced to confront the march of a history he’s glamorized through cowboy vaudeville. And although he was the American celebrity par excellence, he was only the synecdoche for the United States of the late 19th century: The romance of the frontier that obfuscated the truth of late-Victorian social inequality (in 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner fretted over what would happen without it); the victims of a genocide, the toll of which is unparalleled in human history; the conspicuous consumption (alcohol and otherwise) to which Veblen gave a name in 1899; the flirtation with high culture and a growing social schism chronicled by Lawrence Levine; and the utterly feminine Annie Oakley who, in performing with her husband and pet dog (who trusted her to act her part and not fail), in a dress and buttoned-up blouse, bespoke not women’s liberation but a romance of gender norms.
When, early in the film, Nate Salsbury asserts, "We’re going to Cody-fy the nation,” we are actually witnessing the opposite. The nation had long since been going down the path of self-important spiritual death. Buffalo Bill just made it look good.
Gabriel Milner is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Berkeley.
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