How the West Was One

by Natasha Ball


The sign at Armstrong Bank of Pawnee read 4 o’clock and 96 degrees. My mouth went dry when I heard shots ring out from up the street, at the intersection lined by an old Rexall Drugs and the green awning of a Subway, behind a marching Boy Scout troop carrying an American flag. Then I saw the gun, held aloft by a cowboy on horseback, riding along the yellow dotted line in the center of the road. A small crowd gathered, sprawling on the curbs and quilts under trees. A man announced the parade from a white gazebo, where pleated American flags hung from the railing.

The Pawnee Bill Wild West Show starts this way each year. It’s the overture to the reenactment of one of the three largest Wild West shows in the world, staged just west of Pawnee on US 64, at Pawnee Bill Ranch. Parade goers filed up the winding drive at the ranch, parked in rows in a buffalo pasture, and rode a tractor-hitched trailer to a pre-show of snake charming and blacksmithing, a mermaid, and a supper of cowboy nachos. Gordon W. Lillie, the architect of the original production, was dubbed Pawnee Bill for his work at the Pawnee agency in Indian Territory, a name that proved attractive to recruiters who visited the area looking for performers for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Lillie spent his life preserving what he liked to remember about the Wild West, going so far as to collect one of the largest privately owned herds of bison in the world.

For the big show, the parade announcer offered some advice: Sit in the bleachers to the south. Once the show gets started, there’d be a lot of dirt flying, and we wouldn’t want to miss the show for the dust.

“Name is Mike Pahsetopah—Osage, Cherokee, Muscogee-Creek, Yuchi.” His name is Osage, from the Buffalo Clan, meaning “four hills”—“like four buffaloes on four hills in the distance—that’s what my name means,” he told me, smiling and pointing toward the horizon.

Behind us was the Pawnee Bill Museum, a dark cave-like building where vintage posters and models of the almost suburban show encampment glowed from behind glass, with a children’s cowboy camp in the darkest part in the back, outfitted with a chest of toy guns. Mike put his fists to his hips as we talked, into the lime-green fabric of his costume as the sun beat on his black hair. His legs were covered in fur warmers, and the elastic of his armbands dug into his skin. He’d packed his amp and microphone, ready for transport to the next performance, and the audience that had gathered around to see a World Champion Fancy Dancer and America’s Got Talent contestant had begun filtering into other parts of the sideshow, to the pony rides and tables of jewelry and cast-iron kitchenware. “A lot of times people will come to Oklahoma, they want to see Native Americans, and this shows them that, you know, we’re still here,” he told me. “We still have our culture. We do these dances with this in mind.”

Inside, behind a folding screen in the museum—just off the gift shop, across from the $1 arrowheads in mini Ziploc bags and cowboy-hat cookie cutters—were ice chests of bottled water and boxes of Simple Simon’s, at the ready to feed a cast of dozens. It’s something they’ve done the last three Saturdays of June every year since 1988, the centennial anniversary of the launch of the original show.

Nine-year-old Leah Brown is one of several girls who were going to be part of the show that night, between the Pawnee dancers, chariot racing, and the burning stagecoach. Headlining acts included sharpshooting from May Lillie and trick roping from Mexican Joe, plus the ranch’s maintenance supervisor doubling as Pawnee Bill. They all know Leah, who lives with her family in Lillie’s former carriage house on the museum grounds, a garden-and-cottage setup with an overflowing squash patch and a porch from where the surrounding pastures seemed to spill and unroll. It’s sandwiched between the log cabin used by Lillie and his wife and the 14-room mansion built by the fortune yielded from the show. It tops Blue Hawk Peak, named for the Pawnee man from whom Lillie had purchased the property.

Erin Brown, Leah’s mother and historical collections specialist at the museum, was on patrol on show day, in a denim skirt and a Pawnee Bill t-shirt, a scene of trick-riding women across the front. The ranch aims to provide a glimpse of the imaginary Oklahoma of the 1880s, Brown said, a story that Pawnee Bill helped to write—“This is what we think of when we think of Oklahoma,” tourists say, she told me. She showed me the hem tucks on the bottom of her daughter’s flour sack-style dress—it’s authentic for the time, she explained, running her thumb over the folds that would be let out as the wearer grew taller. “She’s actually living my dream,” Brown tells me. “When I was Leah’s age, I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wanted to be able to live in a log cabin.”

There have been modifications to the show—there are microphones, CDs play the music rather than a live band, and, “because of the time we live in, some things just aren’t politically correct anymore, and we’re not going to do them,” Brown said. “I think our site does a good job of preserving what is historically Oklahoma, and then presenting the story in an authentic way,” she said.

The West was changing in 1888, being driven off into the ocean, its realities drowning and leaving only its stage-worthy legends and box-office busting stage productions to speak for it. Pawnee Bill knew his audience, the ones who would buy tickets to see both the American West and the Far East— “He had people from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. He even had Australian Aborigines in his show,” Brown said. “It was a chance for somebody to go see people from all over the world, in one place.”

Plus, Brown added, “People really wanted to see what an Indian looked like.”