The Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum has arguably the world's most comprehensive collection of Wild West Show artifacts. It was the home and ranch of Pawnee Bill, whose Wild West Shows persisted in one form or another, always bigger and better, for more than 25 years, from the late 19th century through the early 20th century.
|Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum, Pawnee, Oklahoma|
The importance of the Wild West Show as entertainment is indisputable. Wild West Shows were popular both in the major cities as well as in rural America. For the inhabitants of the urban areas, the Wild West Shows represented a dramatic spectacle that fascinated those who attended, and who held a complicated and complex notion of the American West, at once the great, vast frontier of boundless potential, while also representing the darkest recesses of the human psyche, where violence, lawlessness, unthwarted desire, and danger abounded.
|Interview with Erin Brown, Curator of Collections, Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum|
It was also a place of caricatures and pernicious stereotypes, as commonly held and communicated ideas were routinely strip Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans, Asians, and other groups of their humanity and even their lives.
The Wild West Show was, above all, a spectacle, with dramatic costumes, sharpshooting, rope tricks, stage coach robberies, horseback football, and other events. Like a Las Vegas show a century later, the goal was to entertain the masses, and to have them arrive with dreams and stars in their eyes, all conveniently manufactured by the mass media of the day: dime novels, early moving pictures, handbills, daguerrotypes, ink prints, serialized stories in newspapers, costumes, and jewelry.
But, the question becomes, which came first: the dime novel or the Wild West Show? And, then, how did that shape the notion of American Identity?
The barrier between the two is miscible: think of the Wild West Show and the notion of American identity as fluids that constantly move back and forth, constantly mixing and changing.
Why does it matter? Here are a few questions that are triggered by considering the Wild West Show and American identity:
* What part of "Wild West" shapes current ideas of identity?
* Where and when did the exploits of the "Wild West" merge into science fiction genres?
* Where does the Wild West Show show up in science fiction movies, television, and novels?
*What are the key characteristics of Wild West personae and the dramas depicted in the enactments of the show?
Here are a few initial thoughts about characteristics of the Wild West Show and the archetypes / mythos that are generated and perpetuated:
Clash between good and evil
Showdowns and shoot-outs (duels, updated)
"Cowboy" values: what do you stand for if you wear the white hat?
"Outlaw" values: what do you stand for if you wear the black hat?
A place where anti-heroes prevail (the outsider, the outlaw, the disenfranchised, the outside-the-norm)
Independent women (female ranchers)
Tribes fighting to the death against the forces have sought to destroy them
The outlaw (of all kinds)
The saloon girl / prostitute as a normalized female
The Mexican wanderer / seeker
The warrior who subjects himself to a "dark night of the soul"
The vision quester
The loner (often traumatized veteran)
|May Lillie, of the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show|
Perhaps all these questions and ruminations would be simply a pleasing anachronism, except that the ideas persist.
We need to know when we're responding to an image or a set of behaviors because we've been conditioned to do so by the socialization processes embodied in cultural myth and mythos.