Americana: Nebraska

Behind the Curtain of the Wild West
January 19, 2010 to February 06, 2010

Once upon a time, there was a man who was an entertainer, businessman, bison hunter, and American soldier. He could mend disputes among unruly cowboys, Native Americans, women sharpshooters, and soldiers from faraway lands. His name was Buffalo Bill. One day, inspired by his adventures, Buffalo Bill decided to tell his stories to the rest of the world. The result, The Adventures of Buffalo Bill, were a theatrical and spectacular portrayal of the American West. They hinted at the unique conditions for the creation of an American identity, which was driven by the constant pursuit of new frontiers, the acceptance of cultural differences, and the desire to make all follow one voice.

His own tale had began in 1883 in a small town in Nebraska called North Platte. There, William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1846-1917) set forth to create the idea of the American West in his play Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Bill's show looked with a nostalgic eye back to the early days of the nineteenth century, which had been, ironically, characterized by the often-brutal integration of western lands into the United States. The play captivated its audience by exaggerating Buffalo Bill's qualities as a savior and using montage sequences. Buffalo Bill became America's first celebrity and toured throughout the United States and Europe. On one occassion his theater troupe departed for London with a hundred and twenty-two actors, ninety-eight Native Americans, a hundred and eighty horses, seven Texan steers, four donkeys and two deer. It was a traveling circus with an enormous commercial enterprise. Buffalo Bill's Wild West was among the first entertainment businesses to export American culture to the rest of the world and marked the beginnings of the American entertainment industry.

One could not help but be submerged in the spectacle of Bill's theater. Buffalo Bill's Wild West captured stories and characters from reality and transformed them into picturesque representations of the American West, such as General Custer's Last Battle. These stories were played by real-life characters like Sitting Bull and Kicking Bear. Through
performances and costumes, they were expected to represent their Sioux traditions. The stage became the only place where traditional Native American rituals were practiced in public. One of the most famous "characters" in the play was Annie Oakley, an impressive sharpshooter, with a liberal nature who was not afraid to assert her independence. Indeed, although all performances centered on Bill's adventures, by assimilating characters in his play, his tale was one that embraced the differences within American culture.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West reveals one quality within American society that is pertinent to this day: a desire for
assimilation mixed with a respect for cultural difference. In his performances every character was given a voice, but they all had to summon to Buffalo Bill's song. Today, although many Americans have lost their confidence in a cowboy who proclaimed abilities to solve disputes, others still hold on to the belief that one man can save society from what seems ideologically untrue.

Curated by Maria Elena Ortiz

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