Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill and the circus of lies – A new book describes how Native American culture was consumed and repackaged by show business. Its author, Eric Vuillard, explores into the relationship between two of the main characters in this travesty.
Throughout the 1880s, Buffalo Bill Cody dragged his new circus from town to town, improving the acts and recruiting new stars. But as it developed, the Wild West Show acquired a new form of success; it was no longer just a circus, no longer a troupe of acrobats performing on stage.
No, it was something quite new: reality itself. Galloping horses, re-enacted battles, suspense, people falling down dead and getting up again: it had everything. And the audiences grew all the time: clapping, laughing, shouting, completely spellbound; as if the world had been created in a drum roll.
However, the real spark was elsewhere. The central aim of the Wild West Show was to astound the public with an intimation of suffering and death which would never lose its grip on them. They had to be presented with human figures shrieking and collapsing in pools of blood. There had to be consternation and terror, hope and a sort of clarity cast across life. And above all, there had to be a story, the story that millions of Americans, and then millions of Europeans, wanted to hear; the only story they wanted to hear, and the one that, perhaps without knowing it, they were already hearing in the crackle of the electric light bulbs.
The inhabitants of American cities – this new breed of humans whose disquiet is a stubborn question addressed only to them, who in the depths of their angst have a sense of being set apart, designated by the spirit of progress to seize the torch of humanity and hold it higher than anyone ever has before – they wanted to witness something different, they wanted to travel across the Great Plains in their imagination, to ride through the canyons of Colorado and experience the lives of the pioneers. But the thing that really made Buffalo Bill’s spectacle irresistible was the presence of the Indians, real Indians.
Of course they didn’t realise this themselves, because most of them despised Indians. But if they scrimped and saved to buy tickets for every member of the family, and took their seats quietly in a row on the “bleachers” (benches), it was unquestionably to see the Indians. So Buffalo Bill had to show Indians. And if such a spectacle was to prosper, he had to keep coming up with new stars. For this, apart from Buffalo Bill himself, there was his impresario Major John Burke.
Like most people who wore cuffs in those days, John Burke wasn’t a major at all. You come across him sometimes under the name of Arizona John, although he had never been to Arizona either. He was just a swindler of the worst kind. In those days, any nincompoop could found a city, become a general, a businessman, a governor or President of the United States; and perhaps this is still the case. John Burke had sensed the coming of the vast machinery of a culture of spectacle, and was now press officer to Buffalo Bill – his publicity agent, the greatest and the wackiest of them all. Thanks to a perfect match between the man and his times, the former journalist, broker and one-time leader of a troupe of acrobats became the inventor of show business.