Buffalo Bill's Wild West and the Progressive Image of American Indians

Jason A. Heppler and Douglas Seefeldt

Between 1870 and 1920, Progressives developed a remarkably ambitious agenda that sought to control businesses, eliminate poverty, purify politics, and transform other Americans in their image. Progressive ideals had their roots among middle–class Gilded Age men and women who transformed their views of the individual, society, gender, and leisure between the end of the Civil War through the turn of the century. Progressives demanded social transformation through a broad array of settlement houses, churches, schools, courtrooms, and legislative halls. Progressives, however, were far from unified in their approach to a broad social agenda. For many Progressives, the Wild West Show was a source of frustration. Reformist Progressives—religious or government reformers—often approached the Progressive agenda through common ways. Among Native Americans, Progressives sought to force Native people to adopt reforms and eradicate their traditional lifestyles. The image of Indians as "savage" and "uncivilized" was commonly held among Reformist Progressives. Enabling Progressives, such as William F. Cody, believed in the reformist ideals of Progressivism but differed in his method. Rather than insist upon compulsory transformations, Cody believed in enabling Indians to come to terms with modernity on their own. Cody never discouraged tribal culture but allowed Native peoples to continue cultural practices both in the arena and behind the scenes. The differing ideologies and images of Indians collided in the Wild West Show, most spectacularly in 1899 in a dispute between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Wild West Show. The contest over whose Progressive image of Indians would prevail shaped the conflict between Reformist Progressives and Enabling Progressives.