Buffalo Bill & His “Blood-Thirsty” Indians The hardest-fighting tribe of the American West devoured European audiences alive...with eloquence and wit!

Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
Because Sam Lone Bear could speak English, French and German, in addition to Lakota, he acted as interpreter for the group at the Brussels 1935 exposition. Starting in 1894, his history as a Wild West show performer was the longest among the Lakotas. Lone Bear is shown here at age 22, among one of 10 Lakota performers with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West who posed for Philadelphia photographer William Rau in 1900.
– Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave –

“Heap-big Injun likum Paris?” asked The New York Times reporter.

Chief Daniel Black Horn replied, “I think it might facilitate matters for you if I refer you to our interpreter, Sam Lone Bear.”

At that point, the reporter asked Lone Bear in English if he spoke French. His reply was, “Oh yes, and I also speak German.”

Lone Bear then pointed out that he made it a point to learn English, French and German, and that he had visited Paris several times. This 1935 trip through Paris on his way to the Exposition Universelle in Brussels was his eighth trip to Europe.

Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
When Chief Black Horn traveled with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West to Europe in 1902, the showman had encouraged the Indians to make and sell goods to visitors to supplement their income.
– Courtesy François Chladiuk Collection –

The trip was Black Horn’s fifth to the continent and the seventh for his friend White Buffalo Man. Like Lone Bear, they first visited Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.  So had Luther Standing Bear, who wrote about his visit to London with the Wild West: “I was sorry to leave this city, because I had been given a chance to see many wonderful sights and visit many interesting places.”

These Lakotas had discovered something…they liked performing, and they liked Europe. They were a logical choice for the arena. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West featured performers from other tribes—such as Arapahos, Pawnees and Crows—but the Lakotas had held out the longest against the encroachment of the U.S. Army, settlers and American culture.

Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
After the demise of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1913, Sam Lone Bear joined Buffalo Bill Cody, the showman’s foster son, Johnny Baker, and a cast of thousands in re-creating the Indian Wars on film. One of Sam Lone Bear’s trips to Europe was to Paris, France, in 1923, to promote the opening of the movie The Covered Wagon, where he was sketched by French artist Marthe Antoine Gerardin.
– Courtesy François Chladiuk Collection –

By 1935, Lone Bear and his friends had been to Europe more times than most other Americans. Their adventures began with William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who took 90 warriors and their families to England in 1887 with his Wild West. He would return, visiting Paris and other parts of the continent, with more Lakotas from 1889 to 1892. Then the show returned again, from 1902 to 1906.  Each time, the Lakota warriors and their families comprised the largest and most popular part of the show.

In the beginning, Buffalo Bill had argued that, once the Indians saw the cities of the eastern United States and Europe, they would realize that they could not stop the tide of civilization, and they would adapt. That did happen, as Lakotas frequently donned American-style street clothing when not performing. But the twist was that the Lakotas also discovered that performance was a way to hold on to their cultural traditions. Perhaps more important, they further realized that audiences in America, and particularly Europe, were fascinated with their culture and valued it.

Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
The last show to Europe coordinated by Joe Miller, of the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch, was in 1927, when he died that October. Clarence Shultz stepped into the gap in 1928, becoming the Circus Sarrasani’s exclusive representation to Pine Ridge. He hired several Buffalo Bill’s Wild West veterans, including Sam Lone Bear and Mark Spider, the only single men among the eight families chosen to perform.
– Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, Kansas City, Missouri, PR2802, Record Group 75 –

After Buffalo Bill’s initial foray in 1887, other Wild West shows visited Europe, bringing more Indians, particularly after William F. Cody, the man behind the famous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, died on January 10, 1917. Some Lakotas performed only one season, while others became regular performers, using the shows as an opportunity to get away from the hard and often miserable life on the reservation.

Some Lakotas even stayed in Europe.  Today, descendants of Lakota performers live in Marseilles, and you can visit the  grave of Edward Two Two near Dresden, Germany.  Two Two died in Dresden while touring and asked to be buried there.

Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
White Buffalo Man (Thomas Stabber) and his wife, Sallie. Clarence Shultz, who was in charge of the Lakota contingent for the Sarrasani Circus in 1928, had souvenir postcards like this one made for the performers to sell.
– Courtesy Steve Friesen Collection –

A year after his performances at Brussels in 1935, Lone Bear wrote a friend that he missed Europe. He hoped to perform there again, but the black clouds of war, WWII, were gathering, and a return was not possible. Yet he would treasure the memories of his travels, writing, “I have good time every day.”

Visitors to the 1935 exposition did not realize it, but they had also been witnesses to the end of the Wild West, at least the Wild West that Buffalo Bill had promoted. Buffalo Bill himself predicted this in 1901, when he wrote, “the life of the Wild West Show proper is limited to the present generation. For only men who have lived the life it reproduces can preserve its quality and reality.”

Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
After the group of 15 Lakotas visited Europe in 1886, the large cast that made up Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, including 90 American Indians, would most effectively introduce Indian culture to Europe, beginning with the trip in 1887, four years after Buffalo Bill Cody opened his show at the Omaha fairgrounds in Nebraska. Black Heart, perhaps among these Lakota warriors racing through the arena in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, testified about the show organizers: “These men furnished us the same work we were raised to; that is the reason we want to work for these kind of men.”
– Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum And Grave –

Men like White Buffalo Man, Lone Bear and Chief Black Horn, at one time the youngest to have lived that life, were now middle aged. Lone Bear, at 57, had performed longer with Wild West shows than any other Lakota. History lost track of this unofficial ambassador to the world for his people, with the U.S. census last recording him at Pine Ridge in 1940.

Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
Buffalo Bill Cody was not the first to take representatives from America to Europe; Christopher Columbus and later explorers took the first Indians home, unwillingly. By the 1700s, some visited of their free will, seeking to intercede with the colonial powers of England and France on behalf of their peoples. Small groups continued to visit Europe into the 1800s, as diplomats or tourists. They would not visit as performers until 1819, most notably with artist George Catlin, during the 1840s. The first Lakotas to visit Europe came in 1886, perhaps modeling their re-creation of an attack on white settlers off of those performed by American Indians in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West arena, at Erastina on Staten Island, New York, that same year.
– Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave –

In Buffalo Bill’s day, the showman had insisted that his Wild West was not a show, but an educational exhibition. But the mock battles had to end, and cultural understanding begin, before that vision could be fully realized. At the 1935 exposition, visitors from all over Europe learned that American Indians were not half-naked ignorant savages. They met men like Lone Bear, who spoke several languages and was well traveled, and were surprised to see that the Lakotas, when not performing, dressed similarly to them. 

Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
With Buffalo Bill’s Wild West the most celebrated of the Wild West shows, Pratt’s Carlisle School led a campaign to undermine the performances. In 1898, around the time these Buffalo Bill performers were photographed, the school published an article in Indian Helper, criticizing the showman for “hiring the reservation wild man to dress in his most hideous costumes of feathers, paint, moccasins, blanket, leggings, and scalp lock, and to display his savagery, by hair-lifting war-whoops make those who pay to see him, think he is a blood-thirsty creature ready to devour people alive… when we agree with the oft-repeated sentiment that the only good Indian is a dead one, we mean this characteristic of the Indian. Carlisle’s mission is to kill THIS Indian, as we build up the better man.”
– Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave –

The Lakotas’ departure from Europe at the end of 1935 marked the end of the Wild West as a living reality for the people of Europe. The wild American West was now a historical event, and the Wild West as live presentation was over.

Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
The Europeans weren’t the only ones immersing themselves in another’s culture through the Wild West shows. On one of the sightseeing trips that Cody and his Lakotas took to Europe, the performers posed on the site of Napoleon’s defeat, at the Waterloo monument outside Brussels, on June 2, 1891. They also recorded their names in the guest register.
– Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave –
Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
In 1933, because of his disdain for the Nazi party, Hans Stosch-Sarrasani chose not to tour Europe and instead took his circus to South America. Clarence Shultz did not join the Sarrasani Circus, as he had in 1928 (photo shows him and wife flanking the Lakotas at the Germany show), but instead took Lakota performers from Pine Ridge Reservation in Dakota Territory to the “Century of Progress” in Chicago, Illinois, to participate in the Indian village. The experience would serve him well when he returned to Europe just over a year later for 1935’s “Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Bruxelles.”
– Ad Courtesy Steve Friesen Collection; Photo Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, Kansas City, Missouri, PR2800, Record Group 75 –
Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
European visitors to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West were fascinated by the living representation of a culture they had only read about. This photo shows Lakotas breaking camp during an appearance in Brussels.
– Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave –
Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
Lakota performers had some fun during a 1932 visit in downtown Brussels. They clothed the famous Manneken Pis (Pissing Boy) fountain in a ceremonial Plains Indian outfit, which attracted a large crowd.
– Courtesy François Chladiuk Collection –
Lakota Performers Indians Native Americans Buffalo Bill True West
Lakota performers with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West were as excited to see the sights in Wales as the gathered crowd was to see them.
– Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave –

This material is an edited excerpt from Lakota Performers in Europe: Their Culture and the Artifacts They Left Behind by Steve Friesen and published this June by University of Oklahoma Press. He will be retiring this October, having served 22 years as director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave in Golden, Colorado.

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