Abstracts of Papers
The Wild West Show in James Welch's The Heartsong of Charging Elk
Published in 2000, three years before James Welch died an untimely death, The Heartsong of Charging Elk presents the experiences of an Indian in France at the end of the 19th century. Welch reverses the gaze: his novel looks at facets of European and American culture through the eyes of Charging Elk, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
One of the novel's major storylines centers around Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, heavily drawing on historical accounts and recent publications about the show. The Wild West was one of the most successful entertainment businesses of its time - both in America and in Europe. The exhibition featured performances by cowboys, sharp-shooters, rodeo-riders, Mexicans, Indians, and of course William F. Cody himself. Cody, popularly known as Buffalo Bill, was the creator and manager of the Wild West. His decision to name his invention simply, Wild West, instead of adding "show" or "circus" reflects Cody's claim that the Wild West is "the real thing" - it is an authentic portrayal of the American West, not a theatric performance. To underscore this supposed authenticity, Cody engaged a number of American Indians, "right from the Plains," to act in his show.
In my paper, I will explore the designated and actual role of these Indians, and their self-perceptions, with regard to the show. I want to focus mostly on the pertinent passages in Welch's novel, but a clear distinction between fact and fiction is not always easy in an analysis of The Heartsong of Charging Elk. Thus, a more relaxed approach seems justified; I will combine an interpretation of the novel with a discussion of first-hand reports and scholarly writings on the topic. My main questions will address a wide variety of issues: What were the motivations for American Indians to accept employment in the Wild West? How did they assess their position and the value of the show, in general? What were the images of Indians imparted by the show? What was the cultural impact of the show in America and Europe?
The Wild West and its creator have incited heated controversies from the time of the first performance until the present day. In the past, Cody was criticized for exploiting Indians as well as for fostering the development of stereotypical views about the West and its inhabitants. But the show has been rehabilitated to a certain degree. Defenders argue, for example, that Cody contributed positively to the survival of ancient traditions and cultures. In light of this ongoing debate, I will attempt to give a well-balanced view of the role of American Indians in the Wild West. Above all, I want to provide an insightful analysis of the show's representation in James Welch's The Heartsong of Charging Elk.