In the thirty–three year run of Buffalo Bill's Wild West, over a thousand Native Americans performed in the Show by showcasing skills in historical reenactments, demonstrating equestrianism, and performing ceremonial dances. The popular image of American Indians tends to emphasize Plains Indians and depict them as tipi dwellers, skilled in horseback riding, and hunters of bison.
The phrase "show Indian" likely originated among newspaper reporters and editorial writers as early as 1891. By 1893 the term appeared frequently in Bureau of Indian Affairs correspondence. Bureau personnel referred to Indians employed in Wild West shows and other exhibitions using the phrase "show Indian," thereby indicating a form of professional status. Indian performers referred to themselves as oskate wicasa, or "show man," and wore the title as a badge of honor.
The Wild West Show hired performers per season and paid them for their time with the Show. Recruiting took place in Rushville, Nebraska, just across the South Dakota–Nebraska border from Pine Ridge Agency. Cody hired American Indians from the very beginning of the Show. The first Wild West Show in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1883, six of the twelve performances including the opening parade used Indian performers. The earliest performers were Pawnees from Indian Territory and were used in the Show between 1883 and 1885.
Cody shifted to hiring Lakota Sioux in 1885 after contracting the famous Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull carried a reputation as the killer of George Armstrong Custer and the last Native American to surrender to the government during the Indian Wars. Sitting Bull set the stage for all subsequent Show Indian employment as Cody began almost exclusively hiring Lakotas. Their reputation as warriors confirmed the popular image of Indians held in American and European minds. The use of Native Americans as opposed to white surrogates allowed Cody to make the claim that his Wild West Show was as close an authentic representation of the Old West as his audiences could experience.
Indian performers could expect to showcase equestrianism, demonstrate their skills with bows and arrows, and ceremonial dances. Performers participated in historical reenactments that included Indian attacks on settler's cabins, stagecoaches, pony–express riders, and wagon trains. Show Indians also reenacted the Battle of Little Big Horn and the 1890 tragedy at Wounded Knee. Although Indians were expected to perform under a set of stereotypical parameters, the Show provided Indians an avenue to continue participating in cultural practices deemed illegal on Indian reservations. Vine Deloria Jr. noted that Buffalo Bill and the first generation of Show Indians spent their time "playing" Indian as a form of refusal to abandon their culture. Writing an essay for the Brooklyn Museum and their exhibit on Buffalo Bill's Wild West in 1984, Deloria noted that the Show offered Indians a chance to escape the reservation's travel restrictions, see the world, and earn decent wages. Although Indians were deemed primitive savages in the Show's narrative of the West, they were also noble adversaries of their opponents. "As a transitional educational device wherein Indians were able to observe American society and draw their own conclusions, the Wild West was worth more than every school built by the government on any of the reservations," Deloria noted. "Perhaps they realized in the deepest sense, that even a caricature of their youth was preferable to a complete surrender to the homogenization that was overtaking American society." The Wild West Show provided a space to be Indian and remain free of harassment from missionaries, teachers, agents, humanitarians, and politicians. The Show offered hope and a path towards economic and cultural survival. At a time when government policy resulted in poverty and cultural suppression, the Show made possible the survival of families and cultures.
In addition to cultural preservation, the Show offered an opportunity to travel the world. The first international trip was to London, England, which left New York on March 31, 1887. On the steamship State of Nebraska, the Show's entourage included eighty–three saloon passengers, thirty–eight steerage passengers, ninety–seven Indians, eighteen buffaloes, two deer, ten elk, ten mules, five Texas steers, four donkeys, and one–hundred and eight horses. The Show was part of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria and toured through Birmingham, Salford, and London over a five–month period. The Show returned to Europe during the 1889–1890 season where it visited England, France, Italy, and Germany.
The regular wage for male Show Indians in the Wild West Show was $25 per month while translators and recruiters would receive perhaps $75 or $125. Female performers could expect to make $10 per month while children earned parents an additional $5 in child support. In all, a family could expect to make $40 per month if they signed a contract together. Contrasted with earnings on Pine Ridge Agency, an Indian could expect at best to make $10 a month in a pool of scarce job openings. Jobs such as making butter or driving freight often paid even less. The monthly wages combined with Cody's willingness to give departing Show Indians abundant food and clothing meant service as a Show Indian paid very handsomely. Wild West managers estimated that they paid $74,3000 in wages to Pine Ridge Indians between 1885 and 1891. An average Show Indian could expect to make a total of $11,500 for their time with the Show in 1887, and by 1889 the figure rose to $28,800. By contrast, a freighter on Pine Ridge could expect to make, at best, $9,000 for the year's work.
The four individuals highlighted in this section—Sitting Bull, Standing Bear, Red Shirt, and Calls the Name—illustrate larger, representative experiences that the majority of Show Indians went through during their time with the Wild West Show.