you're reading...

Buffalo Bill and Other Reenactments — by Daniel Morley Johnson

by Daniel Morley Johnson

This week in its “This Day in Journal History” column, the Edmonton Journal described a July 23, 1914 event that was attended by “15,000 of the city’s 72,000 residents.” Thousands had paid 25 cents to see a circus. Perhaps they sought light entertainment that was no doubt needed only a few days before the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, when Canada symbolically came of age and got drafted, waging war on the world stage just like the older nations. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was in town for two days, and hundreds of onlookers had to be turned away. “Cody noted that Edmonton and Alberta were as progressive as anywhere he’d been in his extensive travels,” notes the story. Because “This Day in Journal History” is frequently rewritten in the present-day to account for what-might-have-been and what-never-took-place, it is sometimes difficult to tell what editorializing is historical and what is anachronistic addenda to past reporting. Did Cody refer to Edmonton as “progressive,” a world-class city in waiting, as it were? Were these his thoughts? He did note that there were a lot of bison here: “I will have to move to Alberta myself for there are now more buffalo here than in any part of the world.” Sounds more like his shtick than anything; in any case, a celebrity was saying something nice about Edmonton, and as still frequently happens, we take their small gestures of hospitality and turn these into ringing endorsements that yes, the city and its citizens are indeed some place.

The Journal – it is perhaps our contemporary copy editor – provides context: “Cody earned the nickname Buffalo Bill when he was hired by the railways in 1867 to hunt American bison – commonly known as buffalo – as meat for the people laying the track in the West. He killed 4,280 in 18 months.” In one sentence the newspaper links two processes that were among the most devastating to Plains Indigenous peoples: the railroad that would slice through Indigenous territories and bring settlers west to steal the peoples’ lands, and the deliberate decimation of bison populations that were at the socio-economic and spiritual centre of Plains Indigenous lifeways. Indigenous people are an absent referent in this article; however, through a glaring omission they are made present.

Edmontonians flocked to the big top to see “the critically acclaimed Sells Floto Circus, and also to see the lions, acrobats and other acts.” (To my mind, for some reason, “critically acclaimed” hardly sounds like the journalistic terminology of the Edmonton Journal in 1918, particularly in reference to a circus.) Those familiar with wild west shows, of which Buffalo Bill’s was the most famous, might detect another absence here; “other acts” referring to the reenactment of the imagined “wild west” starring Indigenous peoples in what the essayist Rebecca Solnit calls, “a pageantlike docudrama that drew equally from circus, theater, and rodeo.” In her 1996 essay, “The Postmodern Old West, or The Precession of Cowboys and Indians,” Solnit writes:

To comprehend the Wild West Show, imagine that Colin Powell toured the country in a theatrical production simulating the bombing of Baghdad, and that Saddam Hussein joined him occasionally for a command performance. The stars played themselves, and actors played the smaller parts. Enemies on the battlefield became co-stars of the circus, and Cody harboured an outlaw for a while who played himself – Gabriel Dumont of Canada’s Riel rebellion.

Solnit is a U.S. American essayist who, I hope, can be forgiven for calling Dumont “an outlaw” in “Canada’s Riel Rebellion.” Of course, the resistance of 1885 was not “Canada’s”; it was explicitly an expression of Indigenous refusal to be Canadian. And one might take offense at seeing Indigenous resistance fighters likened to Saddam Hussein; however, recall Osama bin Laden’s codename in the 2011 raid by U.S. Navy SEALS. When bin Laden was killed, it was reported to President Obama: “For God and country – Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo … Geronimo E.K.I.A.” – ‘enemy killed in action.’” In August 2011, the New Yorker reported on the raid:

The raiding team then presented the President with an American flag that had been on board the rescue Chinook. Measuring three feet by five, the flag had been stretched, ironed, and framed. The SEALS and the pilots had signed it on the back; an inscription on the front read, “From the Joint Task Force Operation Neptune’s Spear, 01 May 2011: ‘For God and country. Geronimo.’” Obama promised to put the gift “somewhere private and meaningful to me.”

Geronimo, the Apache leader who resisted colonial incursion into Apache lands, is inserted into the contemporary discourse as a code word for the insurgent, the fugitive, in a narrative where manifest destiny meets the war on terror. (And Geronimo was himself a participant in the St. Louis World’s Fair – in the wild west show – in 1904.) Enemy territory is still referred to as “Indian country” and the U.S. President evidently endorses a view that those who resist the U.S. are terrorists; Osama and Geronimo become conflated in time and event, in crime and intent. Solnit’s characterization of the wild west show, with its reenactment of frontier violence that might be reinscribed in myriad ways today, is not far off the mark.


One of the Journal’s rival newspapers, the Edmonton Capital, ran a photo of Buffalo Bill on the front page of its July 18, 1914 edition under the headline “Buffalo Bill and Indian Chiefs.” In the photo, Cody holds a young child who is wearing a headdress. To his right is a woman with two long braids, she is wrapped in a blanket, and appears to be lightly holding the child’s hand. She might be reaching out to comfort him. The more I look at the photo, the more the woman appears angry. The child’s face is difficult to read, but he might be crying. Am I reading too much into the woman and her son? Is it her son? To Cody’s left stands a man, a chief in regalia perhaps, looking directly at the camera. Their names are unknown to us; perhaps this is a stock image, a promotional photo sent to newspapers before Buffalo Bill and his show arrived in their towns. Perhaps these are actors, navigating the newer old west despite the railway, the incoming settlers, the man who killed over 4,000 bison, and the crushing paternalism of governments on both sides of the 49th parallel.

One reason the absent referent is notable is because the thing that is glossed over and silenced becomes for the critical observer even more pronounced, more evident. Indigenous peoples are in this instance erased from the scene of their performance; today’s Journal readers need not think of the wild west or its legacies over their morning coffees. Further, Buffalo Bill’s show was perhaps one of the last legal venues for Indigenous performance in the newer old west. Amendments made in 1914, the year Buffalo Bill came to town, to section 149 of the Indian Act read:

Any Indian in the province of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, or the Territories who participates in any Indian dance outside the bounds of his own reserve, or who participates in any show, exhibition, performance, stampede or pageant in aboriginal costume without the consent of the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs or his authorized Agent, and any person who induces or employs any Indian to take part in such dance, show, exhibition, performance, stampede or pageant, or induces any Indian to leave his reserve or employs any Indian for such a purpose, whether the dance, show, exhibition, stampede, or pageant has taken place or not, shall on summary conviction be liable to a penalty not exceeding twenty-five dollars, or to imprisonment for one month, or to both penalty and imprisonment (S.C. 1914, c. 35, s. 8).

Indigenous cultural and spiritual expressions were made illegal by colonial legislation and section 149 of the Act was in effect until 1951.

In 2013, “This Day in Journal History” shows a photograph of Buffalo Bill alone; what is erased, or cropped out, are the “other acts” in his show. Surely the fact that a century ago 20% of the city’s population assembled to watch a re-enactment that dramatized the subjugation of Plains Indigenous people – which would have been lived experience for folks who were, say, over 40 years old in 1914 – might be emblematic of the racism upon which this city is built. Rather than taking “This Day in History” and presenting it for what it was by running a facsimile of the 1914 article, “This Day in Journal History” presents a sanitized rearticulation of an event that is more suited to current tastes. Edmontonians attended a circus, not a wild west pageant; the newspaper column itself is a reenactment. The “other acts” – Indian outlaws, Indian chiefs, the Indian Act – are not seen, they are not referenced. For a critical reader, they are more pronounced in their being silenced, more prominent in their absence. This Journal article is part reprint – and like all re-prints – part statement about our contemporary reality. Through the rhetorical maneuver of indirect speech, a tricky way of attributing thoughts and words to an individual without quoting them – a specialty of journalists – we are told that Buffalo Bill Cody thought Edmonton was progressive, and by extension, a place worthy of spectacle: in 1914, a circus, in 2014, an arena. Edmonton has apparently always been a city on the brink of greatness, and local journalists have always been quick to point that out, especially when the idea is affirmed by somebody from somewhere else.

August 21 will mark a much more important day in history, 136 years since the leaders of Plains Indigenous bands signed an adhesion to Treaty Six at Fort Edmonton, where the Alberta legislature stands today. There weren’t any newspapers in Alberta in 1877, so the event will not be commemorated in the Journal’s daily reenactment of local history. I doubt the event will be commemorated here at all, aside from maybe a few posts on social media by those who know. It might be a good day for a flash mob, a convergence at the place where Treaty Six was signed on behalf of the future citizens of Edmonton, on behalf of us all. August 21 feels like a good day for resurgence, the affirmation of presence, an act of treaty renewal that might honour where we’ve come from and that we are some place. We might pursue a collective action to counter historical denial and thus reframe, or reenact, a narrative worth remembering.


July 23, 1914: “Edmontonians throng to glimpse American folk hero Buffalo Bill Cody,” Edmonton Journal, July 23, 2013, http://www.edmontonjournal.com/entertainment/July+1914+Edmontonians+throng+glimpse+American+folk+hero/8692484/story.html

Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Nicholas Schmidle, “Getting bin Laden,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/08/08/110808fa_fact_schmidle?currentPage=all


Daniel is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. You can read about his research here.


One thought on “Buffalo Bill and Other Reenactments — by Daniel Morley Johnson

  1. Wow, so interesting. Thanks for this

    Posted by saravk | July 24, 2013, 1:49 pm

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: