Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wild West Indians in Paris

© Roy R. Behrens, Indigenous Nativity (2004). Purchase online.

I've been reading about Native Americans in connection with a talk I give for Humanities Iowa on Iowa-born Wild West showman William F. Cody. It seems clear that throughout his life, the convivial scout had a propensity for the pleasantries of "firewater" in large amounts. Earlier in the 19th century, according to James Welch in Killing Custer (NY: Norton, 1994), "the white man's water" was a brew of "tobacco, capsicum, molasses, peppers, and alcohol mixed with river water and whatever else could produce a fire in the belly" (p. 26).

In 1889, Cody took his Wild West show (including a number of Native Americans) on a performance tour of Europe, concurrent with the World's Fair in Paris. It was the Eiffel Tower's premiere, and all sorts of celebrities attended, as is vividly described by Jill Jonnes in Eiffel's Tower (NY: Penguin, 2009). The Native Americans enjoyed enormous popularity with the French public. According to Jonnes, their performances were so well known in Paris that—

the clowns at the Cirque d'Été [summer circus] had worked up a parody called Kachalo-Ball. The real Wild West Indians instantly gave it cachet by attending the show in groups each night, cheering wildly as the French clowns satirized their riding and their wars and attacks. When the clowns took to dancing their version of Sioux war dances, the visiting Native Americans laughed so hard they had tears running down their faces.