Directions in Digital Humanities Research

[In lieu of a reading reflection this week for HIST946: Digital Humanities, Prof. Thomas asked us to speculate on how we might incorporate digital humanities into our research agendas. Although unrelated to my dissertation work, I am still examining aspects of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and his employment of Native Americans. You can find related posts here.]

William F. Cody’s impact on the historical and idealized American West is unmistakable. As proprietor of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West between 1883 and 1916, he presented to a generation of Americans and Europeans what he believed to be an “authentic” American West experience. Central to his narrative of frontier life — indeed, to the very story of America — were Native Americans. Cody drew primarily from the Lakota from the Pine Ridge Agency and hundreds were employed by the Wild West. The Lakota called themselves oskate wicasa, or “one who performs.” Some excellent historical work has been done that document the Show Indian experience but we remain unclear about the personal experiences many of them went through while under Cody’s employ.

Digital history may offer some solutions. I am designing a new side project I’m calling The Making of Oskate Wicasa that seeks to explore more deeply what travel, performance, and daily life meant for the many Native peoples that worked for Cody. My current thinking seeks to do this in three ways: by collecting, annotating, and connecting documents, images, and biography to specific performers; to analyze the logistics of the Wild West and the methods used to recruit, hire, transport, and care for Show Indians; and to speculate on the spatial dimensions of travel, both where they came from on Pine Ridge and what modern industrial transportation was like.

The Faces of Oskate Wicasa

I’m taking inspiration from Tim Sherratt and Kate Bagnall who are working on the Invisible Australians project that seeks to uncover the lives and histories of many non-Europeans in the country’s history. Borrowing from Sherratt’s “Real Face of White Australia,” I want to create a similar wall of faces and link pictures to documents, contracts, other photographs, other people. The wall of faces could perhaps be filtered by gender, or show children only, or show families only. The wall of faces demands the viewer to ask: Who are these people? What did they do? How did they get here? My previous work on Cody — similar to L. G. Moses — asks how Indians were presented to the public (hybrid print/digital article forthcoming). This project would shift the lens exclusively to the people themselves and interrogate more deeply their individual histories. There may be nothing here — it’s hard enough to find documentary material on male Indian employees, and material for women and children are even more scarce. But perhaps there will be new discoveries or uncoverings by interrogating the people more closely.


One question mark that hovers over the history of Show Indian employment, both in Cody’s Wild West and in other combinations that hired Indians, is how the people found out about the employment opportunity in the first place. Were fliers distributed on the reservation? Were recruiters sent out to find them? Did it spread by word of mouth? What we do know is most Indians were drawn from the Pine Ridge Indian Agency in South Dakota, and normally left to join up with the Wild West by traveling by railroad out of Rushville, Nebraska, to the south of Pine Ridge. For this I see spatial analysis as a key component, drawing on some of the work coming out of the Spatial History Project at Stanford. Perhaps mapping the reservation districts where Indians come from would illuminate something about how news was spread or who was more likely to sign up as a Show Indian. How did the Wild West decide who to hire? Where there specific skills or trades the Wild West looked for? Beyond the spatial, I would like to also visualize the employment of Indians across different companies. Perhaps similar to Richard White’s visualization of railroad directors, it might be useful to track who is employed with different combination outfits over time, thus demonstrating the extent of experiences a single Show Indian might go through in his career.


A final dimension is fully spatial: how the Indians traveled. The Wild West was an amazing outfit and traveled extensively and quickly. We have records of every location the Wild West stopped thanks to surviving Route Books that the exhibition produced. We can map, by season for example, where the Wild West went and demonstrate the true extent of travel that all of the performers with the Wild West experienced. Related to this might be a similar visualization to White’s “Seeing Space in Terms of Track Length and Cost of Shipping.” The Wild West kept records on what it paid it’s employees. There might be ways to think about the costs of hiring Indians: as the Wild West gets further away from Pine Ridge, is there a change in costs that might say something about the resources the Wild West poured into its employees?

So What?

And so we return to the most important of questions the historian asks: so what? What would this, collectively, tell us? Broadly, I suspect it will illuminate more clearly the Native American experience between the end of the Indian Wars and their incorporation as citizens of the United States (roughly 1870 to 1924). Native peoples were not simply pushed away onto reservations, nor did they resist only in the form of physical fighting. Resistance came in other ways, and one primary outlet was to work with the Wild West. Employment was not only lucrative (wages paid to Indians were far higher than they could expect to make on the reservation), but the jobs relied on them sustaining cultural practices that were simultaneously facing eradication on reservations. The lived experiences of the Show Indians also tells us more about the Wild West, how it operated, succeeded, failed, grew, and became popular. Furthermore, we can more clearly see how relations formed among performers themselves.

07 December 2011 · @jaheppler