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“How the West Was Spun”: Speak Story Series storyteller discusses Buffalo Bill’s impact on U.S. history

By Staff | Jul 20, 2018

SHEPHERDSTOWN – Dovie Thomason is oftentimes hesitant to tell the story of how Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show influenced America’s history of the development of the West, but it’s a story that needs to be told, she said.

Thomason, a Native American storyteller, spoke to during the Speak Story Series, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities at Reynolds Hall on July 10.

“I wouldn’t have been brave enough to tell this story to you, if (Speak Story Series founder) Adam (Booth) hadn’t said, ‘It’s the Speak audience,'” said Thomason, who was dressed in a traditional Native American buckskin dress. “I hope there’s a hunger for stories today that talk about these things. These stories that were manufactured as history — we deserve better stories. I’m bringing back the old seeds to fill the hunger in us all.”

Thomason compared American culture’s current disgust with “fake news” and desire for truth, to seeds.

True to her word, Thomason recounted the history of how Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show traveled around the world, propagating the idea that Native Americans were either primitive tree-huggers, with a retelling of Pocahontas’ story loosely based on “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare, or blood-thirsty savages, through reenactments of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Despite this misinformation, Thomason said Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show did two good things for the hundreds of Native Americans traveling with the show: it allowed them to continue dressing, living and worshiping as they wanted, and it freed some of the Native American warriors, like Sitting Bull and Standing Bear, who were being held as prisoners of war by the U.S. government, although U.S. military personnel did travel with the show to monitor them.

“I’ve often asked myself, ‘Why would these Indians do this?’ The idea that Indians would be paid for demonstrating their culture seemed unthinkable,” Thomason said

She also noted it was an easier choice for many of the Native Americans to make, than for them to remain in the U.S., where they would be forced to accept some major changes, including the loss of most of their ancestral lands. Thomason compared their discomfort with change to the way older adults today resist modern changes in technology and interpersonal communication.

Thomason said one of the most touching moments she has experienced when recounting this story happened in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when General George Armstrong Custer’s great-great-grandnephew approached her and apologized for the harm his ancestor did to the Great Plains’ Native American tribes.

“He held my hand and said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m grateful for what you’ve remembered, and that we got a chance to meet,'” Thomason said.

She said the experience shaped how she views the future for Native Americans and the United States.

“When they were opening Indian land, they opened Pandora’s Box,” Thomason said. “But one thing they do not mention about Pandora’s Box, is that the last thing wasn’t taken out of the box — hope.”