During my last stint in grad school I helped out with a conversational English program at a Knoxville church. The students came from a variety of places, but East Asia was probably the most common point of origin.
During one class–I don’t remember how this happened–the topic of reenacting came up, and most of the students had no idea what we were talking about. As I tried to explain what reenactors do, one guy from China was absolutely bumfuzzled by the whole concept.
“They shoot guns?” he asked.
“No bullets. Just gunpowder. They line up like they’re going to fight a battle and do what the soldiers would have done, but it’s just acting.”
“No, not a game. They use it to teach people about history, but sometimes they just do it for fun.”
“And they wear old clothes?”
“They wear what people would’ve worn a long time ago. The kinds of clothes their ancestors wore.”
He thought about all this for two or three seconds…and then he started laughing hysterically.
The notion that adults would put on historical clothing and pretend to shoot at each other for fun was absurd to him. Most of the other students were just as perplexed. They were looking at me like I’d just told them that some Americans liked to put on Mickey Mouse ears and fling salad dressing at each other.
Ever since that conversation, I’ve sort of assumed that reenacting was an essentially Western and white phenomenon, basically limited to the U.S. and Europe. But a few days ago I ran across something in an unexpected source.
I’ve been reading a biography of Barnum Brown, one of the twentieth century’s most famous fossil hunters and a longtime collector for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (He’s the guy who found the type specimen of T. rex.) Brown was a product of the frontier, born in Kansas in 1873. In 1889, he set out with his dad on a wagon trip across the West to find a new home for the family. On July 4 they arrived at the Little Bighorn in time to see the Crow Indians engaged in what Brown’s biographers term a “reenactment” of Custer’s defeat.
Here’s how Brown described it years later, as quoted in the biography:
Although this tribe had always been friendly to the whites, the Commandant was taking no chance, so he had two companies of the garrison under arms, and two Gatling guns trained on the battleground.
I well remember the occasion: squaws with papooses on their backs or in their laps sat all around the edge of the battlefield….
That’s pretty much all the book has to say about this event, but it’s a fascinating passage. I’d never heard of any Native American tribe recreating a battle.
I poked around a little and found a similar reference in another book. In her examination of memory and Little Bighorn, Debra Buchholtz says the Crow “were the first to reenact the fight in the immediate battlefield vicinity” on July 4, 1891 with Indians playing Custer’s men as well as the Native Americans. That would have been two years to the day after Brown claimed he saw an Independence Day reenactment; maybe Brown had his dates wrong, or maybe this was some kind of annual event.
The Crow weren’t the only people reenacting the battle around that time. Buffalo Bill Cody was staging portrayals of Little Bighorn for his traveling show. Buchholtz also refers to a 1902 reenactment in Wyoming between Indians and a National Guard unit and another with both whites and Native Americans at the Crow Fair in 1909. But it’s the notion of the all-Indian reenactments at the battleground, held only a little more than a decade after the real thing, that fascinates me.
What was the impetus behind it, and how did the participants’ motives for staging it compare to the motivations of modern-day reenactors? What role did this reenactment play in Native American culture, and how different would it be from the role of reenacting in modern American culture?