After the killing of Crazy Horse in September 1877, which occurred mere months after he surrendered to the United States military in May, many of the Native Americans who were involved in the tragic Sioux Wars (c. 1854-1890) decided to cross into the more hospitable lands of Canada. An Oglala Lakota Sioux medicine man and mystic named Black Elk was one of the many people who traveled to Canada, hoping to escape the troubles occurring in the United States. He claimed to have turned fifteen years old after he crossed the border. Yet, although he was young, he had been present at battles such as Little Bighorn (1876), where he reportedly killed and scalped at least one U.S. soldier. Black Elk stayed in Canada for several years, where he deepened his journey into religion, mysticism and supernatural healing.
Eventually, a growing desire for family and homeland drew Black Elk back to the United States. Upon his return, his career path would take some peculiar detours. When the medicine man was in his early twenties, he decided to embark on an interesting adventure—he signed up as a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Black Elk was a member of the performance team when the show was held in New York from November 24, 1886, through February 22, 1887. From there, Black Elk was one of 133 Native American performers that traveled with the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show on a tour in Britain.
The showmen left New York by steamship on March 31, 1887. Black Elk confessed that he and his fellow Native Americans did not take well to the rough Atlantic travel, yet he said even the experienced ocean sailors were unsettled by the powerful storms that the showmen encountered during their journey to Europe. The exhausted performers made landfall in Gravesend, England, on April 16, 1887. They then traveled to London and set up their stage at Earl’s Court.
The London showing of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was held from May 9 through October 31, 1887. It drew special interest from Queen Victoria, who received a private performance on May 11. According to Black Elk, Queen Victoria was very polite to the Native Americans, and in return, the Native American performers grew quite fond of “Grandmother England,” as they named the queen (Black Elk Speaks, Chapter 19). Black Elk fondly remembered that he and his companions cheered heartily for the queen from their prestigious seats in the grandstands during Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration, held on June 21, 1887.
After closing shop in London, Buffalo Bill’s show held more performances in Birmingham, and then Manchester, England. With their tour of Britain done, the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show packed up and sailed back to New York on May 6, 1888. Yet, there was a problem—Black Elk and several other Native American performers had been left behind.
Buffalo Bill’s careless departure from England left Black Elk and his companions (most of whom spoke very little English) stranded without sufficient money with which to purchase a passage back to North America. Fortunately for the abandoned performers, another showman, with the interesting name of Captain Mexican Joe Shelly, was holding his own western show in London. Black Elk and his comrades quickly traveled to London and were hired by this Mexican Joe with the promise of a dollar per day in pay.
Black Elk stayed with Mexican Joe’s western show for more than a year, trying to make enough money for his journey home. He recalled traveling from London with the group to perform in places such as Paris and Naples. While benefitting from the generous care of a Parisian woman in France who had taken a liking to the mystic, Black Elk was informed that Buffalo Bill had returned to Europe and was going to open his Wild West show in Paris, starting on May 10, 1889. Upon hearing this information, Black Elk quickly contacted his former employer. When Buffalo Bill was told about what had happened, and that the young mystic was incredibly homesick, the famed gunman provided Black Elk with a hearty meal, paid him ninety dollars, and arranged for a ship to immediately bring him back to the United States. With the help of Buffalo Bill, Black Elk managed to return to the United States just before a wave of Ghost Dances erupted throughout the Native American community. These religious Ghost Dances frightened the U.S. military and the palpable tensions would eventually lead to needless bloodshed at a trading post infamously called Wounded Knee.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top Picture attribution: (Black Elk as a grass dancer touring with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, London, England, 1887, located in the Smithsonian Institute National Anthropological Archives, [Public Domain-U.S.] via Creative Commons).
- Black Elk Speaks, narrated by Black Elk, recorded and edited by John G. Neihardt. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.