A massive Union Pacific steam engine, pulling more than a dozen cars, belched a cloud of black smoke into the air as it slowly approached the depot in Omaha, Nebraska. A crowd of well-wishers waiting in and around the building waved colorful flags that read “Welcome Buffalo Bill Cody and the Congress of the Rough Riders.” The train hissed while coasting to a stop. An excited murmur rose up from the congregation.
The small Nebraska town had never played host to such pageantry. A fife and drum band positioned next to the tracks broke into a celebratory number just as the conductor blew the train’s whistle. A door on one of the cars slid open and a pair of depot employees hurried over to it carrying a set of sturdy wooden steps. They no sooner got the steps into position than a horse and rider leapt out at them, landing gracefully onto the hard earth. The crowd cheered. Buffalo Bill patted the back of his steed and waved his hat at them. He was dressed in fringed buckskin pants and a jacket. His shiny, ebony boots extended past his thighs. The gauntlets he used to smooth down his neatly groomed hair and beard were fringed with turquoise beads. His appearance did not deviate from the dime novel covers his fans had seen. The crowd before him cheered and chanted his name.
Buffalo Bill led his ride up the track toward the front of the iron horse and paused beside one of the cars. “Open!” he shouted, and the heavy door slid slowly back. Behind it stood thirty-six Indians, mostly Pawnee, including women and children, all wearing their traditional dress. The braves and Buffalo Bill exchanged a greeting, and then the Indians stepped off the train. The fife and drum band stopped playing.
The onlookers appeared a bit frightened, but neither the great scout Cody or the Native Americans paid much attention. Cody removed a box from his saddlebag and stepped down off his horse. He shook hands with the braves, lifted the lid on the box and gave them each a cigar. “Welcome to Nebraska, my friends,” he said to the Indians. “Here is where we will perform this evening.” Turning back to the crowd he boasted, “Without these fine people my Wild West Show would not be authentic or exciting!”
As if on cue, the crowd applauded and cheered. Cody waved to them and escorted the Native Americans through the mass of spectators. Kitsipimi Otunna, a Sacree Indian woman from Alberta, Canada, lagged behind the others, watching as the people gave Cody and her companions a wide berth as they walked by. Like most Native Americans, Kitsipimi decided that being a part of the Wild West Show was a favorable alternative to reservation living.
Allowing Indians to be a part of Buffalo Bill’s program was one of many new approaches the United States government was taking in an effort to improve Native Americans’ morale and material conditions. Kitsipimi’s ancestral way of life had been disrupted by the insurgence of whites onto the frontier. Living off the land-raising a family in the home of her ancestors and continuing on with ancient customs that had been a mainstay for her people – was no longer an option. Being confined to a reservation and forced to conform to a new way of life had no appeal to Kitsipimi. Buffalo Bill had promised her and the other Indians a steady income. There would be little change to Native Americans’ way of life while they were with the Wild West program. They would carry their own tepees and tools.
Buffalo Bill had been appointed by the government as a special Indian agent. He was under bond to return the Native Americans to their reservation once the show was over. Although some Indians felt exploited by the showman Cody, most (Kitsipimi among them) believed that he gave them a fair deal. They believed working for Buffalo Bill had more honor than staying at home and living on government rations, and they strongly defended their position if pressed. According to her memoirs, Kitsipimi believed her association with the Wild West Show was important because it “served as a message to the white race.” She wrote, “It shows myself and my people in a true and authentic manner.”
Kitsipimi Otunna was twenty-two when she hired on with Cody’s troupe. The parts she played in the shows were fairly consistent. She portrayed either a devastated Indian maiden whose husband had been killed in battle or a gracious Indian interpreter who helped Cody communicate with the braves. Like the other Native Americans in the show, Kitsipimi played her part in and out of the arena. Dressed in her garb, she greeted patrons at the show’s opening and closing. This simple act helped dispel rumors about Indian savagery.
Kitsipimi was not the only standout female performer; a Sioux Indian known as Plenty Shawls was front and center as well. Plenty Shawls was an expert horseback rider and served as one of the participants in the program’s re-creation of the famed Ghost Dance ritual. She became quite an attraction after learning to ride a bicycle. During her time in the limelight, she would ride about the arena on the bike waving a handkerchief at the audience.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.