Wild West Shows Exhibit the "Indian"
The dominant white culture in American has long been content to view the Native American as a representative of a single homogeneous culture (Indian), and within the binary construct of noble savage/barbarian. Native Americans have not often been portrayed as, or considered to be, complex individuals who are members of many complex cultures. This strategy of marginalizing and simplifying the Native American began with the first European explorers and continues in the 1990s.1
This practice developed out of the complex relationships formed among Native Americans and the settlers and soldiers of various European cultures during the conquest of the Americas. Some individuals developed a great respect for, or a great hatred of, individuals of other cultures. Through years of unrest, negotiation, fighting, and captivity individuals formed opinions about who (and by association, what culture) could or could not be trusted. While the various cultures fought to win or preserve the land for their families and their herds, deep hatreds, grudging friendships, and confused loyalties emerged.
White Americans learned about the Native American through stories, dramas, and newspaper accounts of the conquest of the wilderness featuring settlers and soldiers as actors and heroes. The ambivalent attitude toward the Native American displayed by the various authors, showmen and reporters was communicated to the white cultures through the literature and popular entertainment of the time.
Native Americans learned about the white cultures in a similar manner. Tales of battles, encounters, treaties, and friendships with the whites were spread by the individuals involved among their people and neighboring groups. Whatever unpression (good or bad) the whites left on the tale-telling individual was communicated to Native American societies through these stories.
The Wild West shows fostered this admiration/aversion dichotomy from the 1880s when such shows were first conceived, into the 1920s when they finally disappeared. For fifty years members of various Native American cultures toured the United States and foreign lands, learning about the white men's world and participating in events that taught the white men little about actual Native American life, but encouraged white cultures to think about Native American cultures in binary terms.