During the 1920’s, my great-great grandparents were performers in a Wild West Show.
Ernest Swallow and his wife Mary Big Nose, the grandparents of my maternal grandmother, were performers in the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West Show. The 101 Ranch show toured extensively through the US, Mexico, Europe, and South America.
The 1924 passport photos of my maternal great-great grandparents Mary Big Nose (L) and Ernest Swallow (R):
Ernest and Mary were Cheyenne and Arapaho. Ernest was Born in 1890 in Porcupine, South Dakota to John Thunder Bear, a judge on the Pine Ridge reservation. Mary was born in 1898 in Darlington, Oklahoma. Her father was named Kiowa Little Bear. Their son George Swallow, my great grandfather, was born in 1920 in Calumet, Oklahoma.
The Flickr page of Dave Miller says Ernest and Mary traveled to South America with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show in 1924. After I found out about the existence of my great-great grandparents, I began to wonder if they were driven to become artists or performers. I wanted to know if the “creative drive” that gave me a voice as a kid was passed down from them. I wanted to fill in the blanks of a family history that feels shrouded in secrecy.
Wild West Shows started in the 1870s as circus-like extravaganzas in which actors playing cowboys, Indians, and outlaws acted out Old West myths and reconstructed historical battles as action-packed extravaganzas. Exhibitions in hunting and sports were also big parts of Wild West Shows. Buffalo Bill Cody created the first successful Wild West Show, which featured “Custer’s Last Stand.” In it, General Custer and his men are killed at Little Big Horn in a battle with Natives, after which Buffalo Bill rides in and kills all of the Indians out of revenge.
From the beginning, Native Americans were an integral part of Wild West Shows.
Many Indian performers in Wild West shows were also tasked with creating “Indian Villages” to exhibit powwow dancing, show off fancy powwow regalia, and to create facsimiles of “Indian Life.” Native exhibitions at Wild West Shows seemed to resemble prehistoric museum displays that contained living people. Even back then, Native people were forced into a past-tense context.
The 101 Ranch Wild West Show toured the country from 1907 to 1939. It originated on a northern Oklahoma ranch of the same name that was established by Col. George Miller, a Confederate veteran who acquired 110,000 acres of northern Oklahoma land in the Cherokee Strip that was also occupied by the Ponca tribe. The ranch was passed on to his three sons after his death in 1903. Similar to many successful farming operations back then, the ranch seems to have suffered greatly after the Great Depression struck.
In 1905, the Miller sons mounted the gala performance of their show. The extravaganza featured an elderly Buffalo Bill, by then a showbiz has-been; and Bill Pickett, the first nationally known African American rodeo performer. Even Geronimo made an appearance. In a moment loaded with symbols of historic struggle, he was photographed supposedly after shooting a buffalo from the seat of an automobile ,while wearing the high fashions of the day. At the time, he was imprisoned in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. An account of the event says he was accompanied by guards throughout his visit to the ranch.
By all accounts, travelling with a Wild West Show was never comfortable, or easy.
Through the Oklahoma Historical Society I found out that the show went on hiatus during World War I. It resumed in 1924, at around the same time Ernest and Mary joined the show.
And they apparently joined the show at a bad time. By the mid ’20s, the show “ran in to grave financial difficulties, losing over $ 100,000 in 1926 alone, then as the Great Depression began the show went deeper into debt.” Like most Wild West Shows, it struggled to compete with the motion picture business. However, in 1924, Paramount Pictures used the ranch to film a Western called Trail Dust. By the time my great-great grandparents joined the show in 1924, cinema had already reached its peak as an art form, and no other spectacle or visual art could compete with its draw.
Mary, Ernest, and their three year old son George, my maternal great grandfather, traveled to South America with the 101 Ranch Show. To get back home, they traveled by ship from Buenos Aires on November 10th, 1924 and arrived in New York City on December 1st. They lived in Calumet, Oklahoma:
A question persists: why did my great-great grandparents join a Wild West Show?
I hope that looking for the answer to this question will help me understand why I’ve been driven my entire life to become a filmmaker, to become a writer, to constantly remain immersed in the arts generally and the entertainment business, and to explore cultural expression in its different forms. Sometimes I feel that If I didn’t have a creative life of some kind, I would have very little else in the way of a personal or even cultural identity.
Discovering Ernest and Mary gives me hope that, perhaps, they toured with the show out of creative aspirations. Were they performers of some kind for the show? Musicians? Actors? Powwow dancers?
The older I get, the more I realize that I’ve navigated through the world without a “cultural compass,” or, more specifically, without a point of view that was informed at all by any tribe I’m descendant from. Then again, I find that many Indian children experience a kind of cultural disconnection when they grow up in places where very few Native American people reside. From the small pieces I’ve gathered about my parents’ younger years, they experienced a similar disconnection. I remember a childhood that was almost completely devoid of any reference to our Kiowa or Cheyenne cultures. My siblings and I grew up with other poor kids in Kansas, but they were usually white or black. Other kids didn’t know what I was, and I only had the vague notion, mainly through my dad, that I was “Indian.”
I realized fairly recently that a sense of shame over being “Indigenous” kept my parents from teaching us anything about our family history. And I know now that this shame is at least partly the byproduct of a boarding school system meant to assimilate Indians. In multiple ways, I’m living proof that this system was successful in erasing Native cultures. I was a late 20th century kid raised on junk food, pop culture, and too much TV.
My maternal grandmother, the granddaughter of Ernest and Mary, was sent to an Indian boarding school in Oklahoma as a child, and she seemed to have lost contact with most of her family after she married my grandfather, who traces his ancestry to Ireland. She and my grandfather started a family in the early 1960s, and then lived the lives of non-Native working class Midwestern people in a very conservative Kansas town.
My dad is Kiowa and Apache, he grew up around powwow culture, and he understands the Kiowa language. He rarely exposed us to anything remotely “Native American,” except for the occasional Pan-Indian powwow. He must have felt this same kind of disconnection that my grandmother felt and that I felt, growing up. As I got older, I imagined most Indigenous cultures in America as simply shadows of whatever they were before Europeans got here.
Over the years, my dad has opened up more about powwowing, about his own enshrouded family history, and hearing the Kiowa language spoken while growing up in Anadarko and Carnegie, Oklahoma.
As a Native kid who knew nothing about “being” Native, I learned to understand and navigate the world in my own peculiar way. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to spend my younger years immersed in my music-cinematic-pop culture obsessions. Growing up, movies were my first gateway to the world.
I believe many people become artists to re-create a moment of catharsis that art gave them early in life, whether it was felt through a movie, a song, a piece of literature, a painting, or anything else that compelled them to express themselves, creatively.
I’ve been trying to recreate this initial moment in some way for most of my life, through writing, filmmaking, taking pictures.
In trying to understand my family history, I find myself hoping that Ernest and Mary joined a Wild West Show because they too were forever trying to create that same feeling.
For me, old photos, public records, and fragments of my great-great grandparents’ existence gleaned from the internet have been reconstructed into a new family history. In historical revision of our lives, the shame of who we are doesn’t exist. In this re-imagined history, knowledge of ourselves and where we come from allows people like Ernest and Mary to thrive.
Without the resourcefulness of my girlfriend Angela and Ancestry.com’s status as the repository for the paper trail created by our existence, I never would have found out anything about Ernest, Mary, or George.