Progressivism, the Show, and the Image
The image of Indians in the Wild West Show reveals the cleavages in thought between Reformist Progressives and Enabling Progressives. Although Reformists were concerned with the physical welfare of Indians employed by the Wild West Show, of paramount concern was the image of Native Americans that would be consumed by the public. The antitheatrical sentiment among government officials, religious reformers, and other Reformist Progressives reflected a belief that show businesses was immoral and counterproductive to the mission of Indian reform. Often circuses, expositions, and shows sought to emphasize the difference of Indians—dance, warfare, equestrianism—rather than the elements that made Indians white. Rather than the image of assimilation, Indians in the Show were the spectacles of savagery.
Cody would agree with Reformists that Native Americans needed to assimilate. Even Show Indians themselves agreed. Red Shirt (see Red Shirt) explained to a reporter that "the red man is changing every season. Indians of the next generation will not be the Indian[s] of the last. . . . Our children will learn the white man's civilization and to live like him." But Cody's Progressivism worked with Indians. Cody and his Indian employees worked together to devise images, rhetoric, and strategies to overcome the critiques of Reformists. Cody consistently emphasized the educational value his Show provided the public (see Cody as Historian) but also emphasized that education could be directed towards Show Indians as well. Cody undoubtedly argued this point to deflect criticism, but he also genuinely admired Indians and believed they would realize the inevitability of social progress through the numbers, achievements, and technology of Euro–American society. Indians under Cody's hire agreed. Two Bears told a journalist in 1877 that he was learning "the ways of the pale faces" and would apply his new knowledge towards raising his children "like white people."
Cody continued to drive the message that the Show was serving Progressive aims. John Burke and other publicists in the Show highlighted how the Show introduced Indians to elements of Euro–American society and culture. "Among the changes of [Indian] habit and ideas which have been effected," wrote a reviewer in 1885, were "the adoption of Christian and civilized attire and even manners, and some progress in the acquisition and use of our language." Show Indians had also, according to the reviewer, "escaped, as aboriginal visitors rarely do, the corruption of some of the vicious and demoralizing habits of our civilization." Newspaper accounts likewise emphasized the "civilizing" influence the Show had on Indian employees. "if there is any one who cherishes an idea that a Wild West Indian is not a gallant and chivalrous gentleman," noted a New York Times reporter, "should have been at the Wild West Show last Wednesday night. To have seen Iron Tail . . . his face wreathed with smiles, waving the long feathered pole . . . and to have seen Joe Black Fox's shining countenance beaming above a big bunch of spangled violets would dispel all doubts." For Cody, the Show was a space for Indians to become educated of the modern world but also protected against its worst aspects.
To further reinforce the beneficial influence of the Show, Cody protected against any hint of Indian degradation. To this end, he promoted the role of religious instruction. When rumors of drunkenness and immorality surfaced in the press and reached federal authorities during the January 1887 performance a Madison Square Garden, Cody reassured onlookers that Indians were receiving the best moral education that could be provided. George Bates, who handled the supervision of Indians in the Show, referred Indian officials to Reverend C. H. Maul, a pastor of the Baptist church at Mariner's Harbor on Staten Island, "whose church was attended [by Indians] twice each Sabbath for three months." Indians, according to Bates, also visited Reverent Henry Ward Beecher, Plymouth Church, Brooklyn; Reverent T. DeWitt Talmadge, of Brooklyn Tabernacle; and Reverent Mr. Hughes, of Trinity Baptist Church in New York.
Despite regular religious observance and evidence of adopting Euro–American culture, officials in the Indian Service continued to mount pressure upon Cody and the Show. No evidence exists to support the critics' charges of immoral influences, but the case developed nonetheless. Indian agents complained of the "scandalous, and suggestively immoral shows" that "designedly pander[ed] to the lowest passions." Officials believed the Shows encouraged "idle time" and "comes back to his home with an intimate knowledge of the seamy side of white civilization; his desire for change and excitement intensified, his all too faint aspirations for the benefits of civilization checked if not destroyed, and with a conviction that the boasted morality of the whites is nothing to be proud of or to copy." If Cody hoped to win the battle over whose Progressive image would prevail, he had to convince his detractors and his audience that the Show was more than just entertainment.
The contest, however, would be hard fought. Reformist Progressives claimed the Show celebrated Indian savagery through the portrayal of roving tribes on the Plains. Having been defeated by the military and confined to reservations, Reformists hoped that their image of Indians as assimilated into American culture would prevail in the public mind. Indians stood at the precipice of civilization, they argued, through land allotments, education, and vocational skills. The Show only served to remove Indians from the welfare of the government and prevent Progressive reform. Cody agreed with Reformists in their general sentiment that Indians need to adapt, but claimed that natural virtues of Indians would create honorable, hard–working, Christian citizens—that they would defend their new American culture as vigorously as they defended their traditional culture. Furthermore, when Show Indians returned to reservations having witnessed American and European society, they would serve as advocates for progress among their people.
The conflicting image of Indians promoted by Reformist Progressives and Enabling Progressives—the need for eradication on the one hand and the desire for understanding on the other—formed the core battle over Show Indian representation.