The Native Americans of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show: Biography by Portrait

Iron White Man, a Sioux Indian from Buffalo Bill's Wild West ShowI’m not an expert on photography by any stretch of the imagination, but I know what I like. When I look at the 1898 portraits of Native Americans from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, I want to scream, “That! I like that!” Trusting that you’ll like “that,” too, I’m going to share some remarkable photographic portraits with you, while telling you a bit about the subjects of those portraits, as well as the woman who captured them.

The Show on the Road

BB2GertrudeKasebierGertrude Käsebier was an aspiring artist, studying at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in Brooklyn when she found her true calling—photography. The institute didn’t actually offer photography courses, but she studied books on the subject at the campus library and they prompted her to try her hand behind the lens.

In 1897, she opened her own photography studio on Fifth Avenue in New York City. What she lacked in experience, she made up for in moxie! The following year, the mother of three sat at her studio window and watched as a cavalcade of members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show paraded down the street. Most photographers would have grabbed a camera and snapped some photos right then and there. But the photographer with moxie decided to write a letter to Buffalo Bill Cody himself, requesting an opportunity to photograph the show’s Native American performers as she thought they deserved to be seen.

Buffalo Bill and Chief Sitting Bull

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was quite a big deal at the time, and Buffalo Bill himself was as famous as any celebrity of the day. And he hadn’t achieved that fame by accident . . . he was as skilled at self-promotion as he was at hunting buffalo. His first autobiography (Yes, there was more than one!) had been released eighteen years earlier. His Wild West show had already toured Europe four times—performing for royalty and commoners alike. In one tour of London, alone, the show had sold more than 2,500,000 tickets. They had already had an appearance before the pope in Rome. So, you can see how Käsebier’s letter was a pretty gutsy move!

Why Just the Native Americans?

What was it about the Native Americans that caught Käsebier’s attention that day? Goodness knows there was a lot to photograph . . . cossacks, cowboys and soldiers, and wild animals galore. As long as a relatively unknown photographer was contacting one of the world’s biggest celebrities and asking for a favor, why didn’t she ask to photograph any and all of the performers? The answer is simple: Nostalgia.BB8

Born in Iowa, Käsebier’s family had moved to Colorado when she was eight-years-old. While her father was getting rich with his sawmill during a building boom, young Gertrude was soaking up the local culture. She had fond memories of playing with Lakota children and a deep respect for all of the Sioux people. She wanted to capture their strength and dignity and she wanted others to see what she saw.

That letter she wrote must have been a humdinger because it struck a chord with Buffalo Bill. Like Käsebier, he held the Native Americans in high esteem, and her personal approach must have appealed to his belief in promoting Native Americans as they really were in order to educate the world, and to also educate the Native Americans. He was quoted as saying, “I thought I was benefiting the Indians as well as the government, by taking them all over the United States, and giving them a correct idea of the customs, and life of the pale faces, so that when they returned to their people they could make known all they had seen.” A photo shoot was quickly arranged and Käsebier readied her studio to record history.

Biographies Through a Lens

BB7This was not the first time Native Americans had been captured on film by a photographer who wished to tell their stories. Early photographers relied on costumes, elaborate props and staged backgrounds suitable for a Broadway show, and the story their photographs told was the White Man’s fantasy, not the reality, as you can see in the portrait on the left. Native Americans were presented more as curiosities than living beings from another culture. Most photos were taken from a distance to better focus on the props, making the faces almost indistinguishable. Käsebier wanted to tell the stories of these Native Americans through their faces, or better said, the expressions on their faces, as well as their body language. She said her goal was to “make likenesses that are biographies, to bring out in each photograph the essential personality.”

With backgrounds less elaborate than a photographer taking generic school pictures, Käsebier went about the business of recording the compelling biographies of the Native Americans in the best-known Wild West show of all time. She told of their inner strength and their outward struggles. And she told those stories without ever saying a word, giving meaning to the idiom about a picture being worth a thousand words. Here are just a few of those stories. When you look at the portraits, notice how the subjects fill the entire frame, so that we as viewers can better focus on the person. I love how you can see the sparkle in their eyes, the sheen of hair, and the lines in the weather-beaten faces. Each picture expresses a quiet dignity, and tells a special story. As you read their stories, you can see more clearly how their portraits express their true selves and their uniquely human qualities and characteristics, making them all so very much like you and I.

Iron Tail

BBIronTailIron Tail was an Oglala Lakota Chief, and was still very much a part of the wilder side of Lakota life. He had never been to school, and lived his life according to the old Lakota values. He was quiet, tall and straight like a pine tree. He was star performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West from 1897 until 1913 and became an international celebrity, appearing as the lead with Buffalo Bill at the Champs-Elysees in Paris and the Colosseum in Rome. He was deeply respected by all of the Native American performers in the show, and was elected by them as the “Chief of the Indians.” Iron Tail was one of Buffalo Bill’s best friends and they hunted elk and bighorn sheep together on annual trips. He said of Iron Tail “He is the finest man I know, bar none.”  BB5Iron Tail was a popular subject for professional photographers who circulated his image across the continents. He is notable in American history for his distinctive profile on the Buffalo nickel or Indian Head nickel of 1913 to 1938, for which he sat as a model.

Iron Tail’s close friend, Major Israel McCreight, with whom he spent a great deal of time reported: “Iron Tail was not a war chief and had no remarkable record as a fighter. He was not a medicine man or conjuror, but a wise counselor and diplomat, always dignified, quiet and never given to boasting. He seldom made a speech and cared nothing for gaudy regalia, very much like the famed warrior Crazy Horse. In this respect he always had a smile and was fond of children, horses and friends.”  In his portrait, Käsebier has artfully captured his grace, dignity and such an impenetrable reserve. He appears to be a man quite satisfied with his life.

Flying Hawk

BBFlyingHawkFlying Hawk was an Oglala Lakota warrior, historian, educator and philosopher. He fought in Red Cloud’s War and in nearly all of the conflicts with the U.S. Army during the Great Sioux War of 1876. He fought alongside his first cousin Crazy Horse in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, and at the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Flying Hawk was one of the five warrior cousins who sacrificed blood and flesh for Crazy Horse at the Last Sun Dance of 1877. Chief Flying Hawk is also notable in American history for his commentaries and historic accounts of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse and the Wounded Knee Massacre, and much of our recorded history of those persons and events is due to his reportage.

Flying Hawk was probably the longest standing Wild West performer, traveling all of the United States and Europe for over 30 years in Buffalo Bill’s show. Flying Hawk was accustomed to royal receptions in Europe and in America had been entertained by most of the dignitaries of the time. After Iron Tail’s death on May 28, 1916, Flying Hawk was chosen as successor by all of the braves of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and was named Chief of the Indians. In their spectacular street parades, Buffalo Bill mounted a beautiful white horse to lead the procession. Alongside of him, mounted on a pinto pony, rode Flying Hawk in full regalia. His eagle-quill bonnet made a fitting crown as it dangled grandly, well below the stirrups of his saddle . . . the number of plumes representing the enemies slain, they were like a Medal of Honor.BB6

In the Käsebier portrait, Flying Hawk’s expression is one of resignation, not defiance or pride, as we might expect from such a great warrior . . . a resignation to performing the White Man’s fantasy, again and again, for an all White audience. In Cody’s Wild West show, the Indians performed battle re-enactments and were always represented as the aggressors, attacking wagon trains, settlers’ cabins, and Custer’s forces. The reality was quite different. Attacks on settlers’ wagons had been quite rare, and it was the Whites who kept breaking treaties with the Indians, not the other way around. In Flying Hawk’s portrait, we see a man demoralized and degraded, forced to misrepresent many of his greatest accomplishments on the battlefield personally, and some of the greatest moments in Native American history.

But many other Native American performers loved the re-enactments and felt that despite the inaccuracies, it provided an opportunity to  continue participating in cultural practices that had been deemed illegal on their reservations. They spent their time “playing” Indian as a form of refusal to abandon their culture. Vine Deloria, the Native American author, theologian, historian, and activist observed that “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.”

Charging Thunder

Charging Thunder was a Blackfoot Sioux from Idaho, who had a rather short career as Wild Wester. Little is known about his early years, but we do know that he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1900, at age 23, and brought along his Soiux wife, who also performed in the show. They are pictured in the Käsebier portrait at the left, posed together, but they seem emotionally disconnected, the wife looking away and down . . . something that did not go unnoticed by the photographer. The emotion in the photo foretold something of a grand Edwardian soap-opera that would play out just a few months later.

In 1901, Charging Thunder met a young American horse trainer named Josephine who also worked in the show, and a torrid love affair began. She bore him a daughter named Bessie, and in 1903, after a performance in London, he and Josephine decided to remain in England, as the show – – and Charging Thunder’s Sioux wife – –  rolled out of town.

Charging Thunder, center, and Josephine, lower left
Charging Thunder, center, and Josephine, lower left

He married Josephine, and together they settled in West Gorton, Lancashire, England. His name was changed to George Edward Williams, after registering with the British immigration authorities to enable him to find work. Williams worked at the Belle Vue Zoo as an elephant keeper for many years. He died from pneumonia at age fifty-two on July 28, 1929. He and Josephine lived happily in England for over 25 years, and had many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Joseph Black Fox

Joe Black Fox, a Sioux Indian from Buffalo Bill's Wild West ShowJoseph Black Fox was an Oglala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Oglala Wild Westers referred to themselves as Oskate Wicasa or “Show Man”, a title of great honor and respect in the tribe. Since 1887, Wild Westing has been a family tradition with several hundred Pine Ridge families. Between 1906 and 1915, 570 individuals from Pine Ridge went Wild Westing with Buffalo Bill. Often entire families worked together, and the tradition of the Wild Wester community is not unlike that of many circus communities. Frank C. Goings, the recruiting agent for Buffalo Bill at Pine Ridge, was himself a Wild Wester with experience as a performer, interpreter and chaperone. Goings carefully chose the famous chiefs, the best dancers, the best singers, and the best riders. Joseph Black Fox and many members of his family were chosen by Goings, and as a family they toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West for many years, across Europe and the United States.  BB11

In his portrait, Joseph Black Fox seems quite at ease with Käsebier and being in front of a camera. He almost smiles for the portraits, which is generally uncharacteristic for Native Americans, as many still believed in the power of the lens to steal their soul. Black Fox poses playfully, with cigarette in hand, relaxed and wrapped in a blanket. He is a young educated man, able to write a little, and to speak broken English. . .and he was a bit of a dandy considering his attire, the earrings, jeweled lizard hair comb and bright scarf.  As he waited for his session with the photographer on that day, he drew pictures and practiced signing his name, and then, overwhelmed by the fear that his penmanship was not good enough, he spit on his finger and tried to rub out the failure.

Mary Lone Bear

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From the standpoint of rarity, the Sioux children’s portraits are by far the most riveting, because there is a Sioux superstition that to paint or photograph a child will bring about its death. Only by reason of a very special friendship and deep trust was it possible to photograph the children, and still it took three years before the family of Mary Lone Bear could be persuaded to bring her to Käsebier. Mary Lone Bear’s entire family performed in the Wild West show. Her father was Chief Lone Bear, an Oglala Sioux and enlisted scout for the U.S. Army, and he and her brother, Samuel “Sammy” Lone Bear, were also photographed by Käsebier.

A note that accompanies their portraits, written by Käsebier, reads, “I told the Indians I wanted to photograph a papoose. They said the women had a superstition that it would kill the child. I told them they ought to know better having been to school and around the world with the show. They brought me Mary Lone Bear, nine years old.” Many photographs were taken, but none quite as captivating as the one featured here. Little Mary is tense and apprehensive, her fingers tightly gripping her hand, as she casts her questioning eyes at the camera. She is not looking at the photographer . . . she is looking at the lens.

In her note, Käsebier continued, “But weeks later I visited the show and went out to the tepees to visit. The squaws grabbed their kids and ran looking at me viciously. I asked what was the matter. They told me Mary Lone Bear had died.”

More About the Biographer

“Portrait of the Photographer,” manipulated self-portrait by Gertrude Käsebier

Gertrude Käsebier went on to achieve great respect in the world of photography, but it was her Native American portraits that first brought her critical acclaim. While she may not be a household name, her portraits are extremely well respected, to this day. Käsebier continued to work in photography until 1925, when she began to lose her eyesight, and in 1934 she died. In 1979, she was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum.

Gertrude Käsebier’s photographs of the Sioux are preserved at the Smithsonian Institution, at the National Museum of American History’s Photographic History Collection. You can view them all online, here at the Smithsonian website. It’s good to know the Smithsonian likes “that,” too!

Here’s a ca. 1900 video of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show parade, very much as Gertrude Käsebier would have seen it from her studio window. Also in the video are Sioux tribal dances performed by members of the cast, and the a brief performance by star of the show, Miss Annie Oakley, assisted by her husband, sharpshooter Frank Butler. I know you’ll enjoy this video. . .it was filmed by Thomas Edison. Yes, the inventor of the light bulb!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

6 Replies to “The Native Americans of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show: Biography by Portrait”

  1. Loved this story! In the early 60’s I took riding lessons from Adele von Ohl Parker, who had been a trick rider with the Wild West Show. Still riding in her 80’s, every summer she staged a small re-enactment with a burning wagon at her place, called Parker’s Ranch.

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful story! I have seen many portraits of Native Americans & often wondered about their personal stories & how they lived their lives, this put it into perspective! Great job!!

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