Annie Oakley, Annie Leibovitz, and Sitting Bull’s History Lesson

22 02 2012

This photograph of a playing card shot by Annie Oakley is part of Annie Leibovitz’s exhibition Pilgrimage, currently on at the Smithsonian in Washington.

In it, Leibovitz leaves behind celebrity portraits and focuses instead on places and objects associated with historical figures and landscapes that influenced her, like Oakley, Elvis, Walden Pond, and Sigmund Freud’s couch.

I’ve become quite interested in Annie Oakley. The photos of her in my post “cowgirls” are very popular. Annie was not a cowgirl like Mabel Strickland, though, she was an expert sharpshooter, and America’s first female superstar.

This woodcut is in the first biography of Annie Oakley, written in 1927 by Courtney Riley Cooper. Cooper knew Buffalo Bill Cody and was reportedly press agent for the Wild West Show in its final incarnations, long after Annie’s departure. I presumed it shouldn’t be taken as complete truth, but after looking at other sources about Oakley, it seems believable and is a good read.

Annie’s story has been manipulated, fictionalized and commercialized in various treatments over time, in films like the unwatchable 1935 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle and the 1950s TV show starring Gail Davis.

And of course the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, which gave original star Ethel Merman her signature song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”.

Since reliable material about Oakley seems lacking, when I heard a PBS documentary about her was available on their website, I was keen to watch.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of those academic talking-head shows that focuses on select episodes TV producers think are the only thing suitable for the small screen: sensationalized tales involving conflict, and suggestions that she died a bitter, broken woman. (I’m not sure that’s true)

Annie’s fascinating relationship with the legendary Sioux chief Sitting Bull was reduced to one line, referring to the name he gave her, “Little Sure Shot”.

Most accounts credit Oakley as the only reason Sitting Bull agreed to be part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The PBS documentary also neglects, along with most popular history, to put into context the high level of racist content in the Wild West Show, and the fact that Buffalo Bill was famous not only for killing buffalo but also Native Americans, and staged phoney versions of events like the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Looking though shelves of old VHS tapes for sale a few months ago, I found a 1976 Robert Altman film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. Made after Nashville, its revisionist message was poorly received amid America’s bicentennial celebrations.

I thought it was both entertaining and moving. After winning first prize at the Berlin Film Festival, it faded from sight. Annie Oakley is played by Geraldine Chaplin, Paul Newman is Buffalo Bill Cody, with Joel Grey as Cody’s business partner Nate Salisbury.

Westernwear as we know it really stems from this time, and the intersection of Native Americans and their colonial killers and oppressors. In Altman’s movie, Newman swaggers in re-creations of Buffalo Bill’s outfits. Some are more accurate than others.

This is one of Buffalo Bill’s real Sioux-made coats. I think I’ve seen pictures of a white version, too.

The Native American influence on westernwear that seems so obvious is pretty much dismissed in the two major books on the subject, How The West Was Worn and 100 Years of Westernwear. A revision of that history would be most welcome.

This jacket belonged to George Custer, who Sitting Bull defeated at the Little Big Horn.

The picture above is in Cooper’s biography, and the PBS show, which contends it’s from the post-Wild West play created for Annie in 1902, The Western Girl. Beyond the staged dramatics, what I noticed was the beaded and fringed collar and cuffs the man is wearing, so similar to today’s western shirt embroidery.

Reading about Iroquois and Wabanaki beadwork recently, I found this late 19th century cabinet card. Here’s another, dated c.1900.

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