Standing Bear

Born near the Tongue River a Minneconju Sioux in 1859, Standing Bear came of age fighting the Crows and Americans. In his youth he hunted buffalo, and fought at Little Big Horn when he was seventeen years old. Standing Bear joined the Wild West Show in 1887 during its first season in Europe. He would choose to join the show for two additional seasons in 1889 and 1890, where he again would tour Europe. While in Austria, he suffered an injury that forced him to be left behind to recover. William F. Cody purchased a return ticket for Standing Bear with instructions from the hospital on how to retrieve the item.

Standing Bear. Library of Congress, X-31692.

In early 1891 while in recovery in Austria, Standing Bear learned of the tragedy at Wounded Knee. His wife had died. But during his time in the hospital he became close to a nurse, Louise Rieneck, who had begun to learn Lakota from her patient. In 1891, Standing Bear and Louise married and returned to the United States in February along with Louise's family. The family moved to Pine Ridge, where the couple built simple, lined caskets that were cheaper than those sold by the government. The venture was successful enough that Standing Bear and Louise moved to a new home near Manderson in 1900 and they added medical care to their list of services, based on Louise's knowledge of European medicine. By 1911, Standing Bear and Louise had borne three daughters, moved into a large log cabin, barn, 640 acres of land, and owned cattle and horses. When the average U.S. worker was making $621 per year, the couple had saved up $1,000.

Standing Bear would not join the Wild West Show again after 1890. In performing with the Show, however, Standing Bear and many other Show Indians found wives. Although not every case of Indian men meeting white women ultimately led to the same experience as Standing Bear and Louise Rieneck, the Wild West Show allowed men and women to cross the racial divide. As historian Louis Warren notes, the marriage of Standing Bear and Louise Rieneck was in many ways a traditional Lakota experience. Lakota culture readily accepted alien women to become part of the tribe through capture in war or friendly alliances. Whether the wife was Cheyenne, Crow, or American, if she learned to speak Lakota, made a home with her Lakota husband, and fulfilled the duties required of her, she in essence became Lakota. The same situation happened with another well–known Indian: the same year that Standing Bear and Louise Rieneck married, Dr. Charles Eastman, a Santee Sioux once known as Winner, married Elaine Goodale in New York. In some ways, marriage allowed for a reconciliation between peoples and cultures. Marriage between Indian men and white women "became a path to a future that reconciled blood and culture," notes Warren. "The future lay in mixing peoples together"

Standing Bear's ventures on Pine Ridge also reflect his determination to look to the future and adopt new ways of survival. Although he refused to learn English and refused baptism until late in his life, he readily combined European and Indian business techniques to make a living. Mixed marriages and sharing cultural attitudes are absent from Buffalo Bill's story of the frontier, but was largely the true experience in the North American West. Concerns of "miscegenation" among Europeans and Americans in the frontier were dismissed. Standing Bear and Louise Rieneck embraced a legacy that allowed them to chart a new future.

Louise and Standing Bear would live near White Horse Creek until 1933. Louise died that year after being in a car accident, and Standing Bear shortly after, stricken with grief, exhaustion, and drought. As Standing Bear's story illustrates, however, the Wild West Show was not always about entertainment. Around the spectacle of the mythic West, outside the arena and beyond the scripted narratives, real people lived their lives.