Sunday, May 29, 2016

Pawnee Bill, The Wild West Show and the Ever-Changing American Identity

21st-century American identity and the 19th-century Wild West Shows are tied together in deep, often surprising ways. They persist and shape our cultural productions and even the way the world frames their political and economic discussions with and about the U.S. To understand why and how, it is useful to take a look at historical documents, artifacts, and reenactments. The Pawnee Bill Wild West Show is an example, and it takes place June 10-11, 2016, in Pawnee, Oklahoma.

The Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum has arguably the world's most comprehensive collection of Wild West Show artifacts. It was the home and ranch of Pawnee Bill, whose Wild West Shows persisted in one form or another, always bigger and better, for more than 25 years, from the late 19th century through the early 20th century.

Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum, Pawnee, Oklahoma
 The annual reenactment of the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show takes place each year the second week of June. It spans two days, and starts with a parade at the town square in Pawnee, Oklahoma, and ends up at the site of the Pawnee Bill Ranch, where there are permanent show grounds, as well as a museum and preserved mansion, barn, and other outbuildings. The site also contains a working ranch with American bison, horses, and cattle.

The importance of the Wild West Show as entertainment is indisputable. Wild West Shows were popular both in the major cities as well as in rural America. For the inhabitants of the urban areas, the Wild West Shows represented a dramatic spectacle that fascinated those who attended, and who held a complicated and complex notion of the American West, at once the great, vast frontier of boundless potential, while also representing the darkest recesses of the human psyche, where violence, lawlessness, unthwarted desire, and danger abounded.

Interview with Erin Brown, Curator of Collections, Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum

 If America was the place of the "Great Re-Invention" as immigrants arrived with the idea of establishing not only new prosperous lives, but also new identities, then the "Wild West" was a place of absolute flux in terms of identities. It was a place where men wore hair as long as women, and ornamented themselves in silver, turquoise, and gold. It was a place where women stood on the back of horses and out-shot the men in accuracy and aplomb. 

It was also a place of caricatures and pernicious stereotypes, as commonly held and communicated ideas were routinely strip Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans, Asians, and other groups of their humanity and even their lives.

The Wild West Show was, above all, a spectacle, with dramatic costumes, sharpshooting, rope tricks, stage coach robberies, horseback football, and other events.  Like a Las Vegas show a century later, the goal was to entertain the masses, and to have them arrive with dreams and stars in their eyes, all conveniently manufactured by the mass media of the day: dime novels, early moving pictures, handbills, daguerrotypes, ink prints, serialized stories in newspapers, costumes, and jewelry.

But, the question becomes, which came first: the dime novel or the Wild West Show? And, then, how did that shape the notion of American Identity?

The barrier between the two is miscible: think of the Wild West Show and the notion of American identity as fluids that constantly move back and forth, constantly mixing and changing.

Why does it matter?  Here are a few questions that are triggered by considering the Wild West Show and American identity:

* What part of "Wild West" shapes current ideas of identity?
* Where and when did the exploits of the "Wild West" merge into science fiction genres?
* Where does the Wild West Show show up in science fiction movies, television, and novels?
*What are the key characteristics of Wild West personae and the dramas depicted in the enactments of the show?

On the day of the show, many people come to Pawnee and role play their favorite Western characters (historical, cultural, or mythical). Here is the film / literature character from True Grit, Rooster Cogburn (enacted by Dr. Benes)
 Here are a few initial thoughts about characteristics of the Wild West Show and the archetypes / mythos that are generated and perpetuated:

    Clash between good and evil
    Showdowns and shoot-outs (duels, updated)
    "Cowboy" values: what do you stand for if you wear the white hat?
    "Outlaw" values:  what do you stand for if you wear the black hat?
    A place where anti-heroes prevail (the outsider, the outlaw, the disenfranchised, the outside-the-norm)
        Independent women (female ranchers)
        Tribes fighting to the death against the forces have sought to destroy them
        Counter-Christian beliefs
        The outlaw (of all kinds)
        The saloon girl / prostitute as a normalized female
        The Mexican wanderer / seeker
        The warrior who subjects himself to a "dark night of the soul"
        The vision quester
        Uncorsetted female
        The loner (often traumatized veteran)

May Lillie, of the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show

Perhaps all these questions and ruminations would be simply a pleasing anachronism, except that the ideas persist.

While some of the stereotypes are pernicious, others are very liberating and they encourage acceptance of individual difference. Further, they are constantly in flux, and form a part of a cultural mythos that is perhaps not as well understood as we need it to be, particularly as we live in a time of instant mass communication and rapid-fire meme generation. 

We need to know when we're responding to an image or a set of behaviors because we've been conditioned to do so by the socialization processes embodied in cultural myth and mythos.

Scenes from the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show, 2015
Blacksmith Adam

Chariot: Kevin Dibble

Drill Team Dibble

Mike Pahsetopah, Fancy Dancer

Contact information:  
Erin Brown /
Ronny Brown / 

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