Native Performers in Wild West Shows


Now that the West is no longer so wild, it’s easy to dismiss Buffalo Bill Cody’s world-famous Wild West shows as promoters of stereotypes and clichés. But looking at this unique American genre from the Native American point of view provides thought-provoking new perspectives. Focusing on the experiences of Native performers and performances, Linda Scarangella McNenly begins her examination of these spectacles with Buffalo Bill’s 1880s pageants. She then traces the continuing performance of these acts, still a feature of regional celebrations in both Canada and the United States—and even at Euro Disney.

Drawing on interviews with contemporary performers and descendants of twentieth-century performers, McNenly elicits insider perspectives to suggest new interpretations of their performances and experiences; she also uses these insights to analyze archival materials, especially photographs. Some Native performers saw Wild West shows not necessarily as demeaning, but rather as opportunities—for travel, for employment, for recognition, and for the preservation and expression of important cultural traditions. Other Native families were able to guide their own careers and even create their own Wild West shows.

Today, Native performers at Buffalo Bill Days in Sheridan, Wyoming, wear their own regalia and choreograph their own performances. Through dancing and music, they express their own vision of a contemporary Native identity based on powwow cultures. Proud of their skills and successes, Native performers at Euro Disney are establishing promising careers. The effects of colonialism are undeniable, yet McNenly’s study reveals how these Native peoples have adapted and re-created Wild West shows to express their own identities and to advance their own goals.

Linda Scarangella McNenly is an independent scholar and instructor in Anthropology. She received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from McMaster University and recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Comparative Studies (ICSLAC) at Carleton University, Ottawa.

“Adeptly introduces readers to the representational politics of Native performers in Wild West shows and to what lies at stake for those who have chosen to perform in them.”—Pacific Historical Review

“McNenly maps Native agency transnationally and across time to reveal a legacy of North American Indian performance that broadens our understanding of how power and representation are negotiated in colonial encounters.”—Canadian Journal of History

"Few people might seem more prone to exploitation than Indians performing in Wild West shows. But by illuminating the continuing dance between objectification and agency, loss and resilience, cultural destruction and cultural rebirth, this carefully researched, eye-opening book explains the long history of these remarkable performers from the nineteenth century to the present."—Louis S. Warren, author of Buffalo Bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show

"A distinguished contribution to the literature about Wild West shows and the performative tradition in Native America. With imagination and skill, the author engages significant debates concerning representations of Native peoples and recurring questions about Native agency. The scholarship is not only sound; it is a model for ethnohistory.”—L. G. Moses, author of Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1883–1933
“The most complete and varied analysis of Native agency in Wild West shows to date. . . . McNenly’s use of traditional archival sources, as well as oral histories, photographs, and material culture, and her effective synthesis of the pertinent scholarship in a range of connected fields make Native Performers in Wild West Shows a significant addition to the field.”—David M. Wrobel, in the American Historical Review

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