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Book review: ‘The American West in France: Transnational Frontiers’

French love affair with the American west


Emily C. Burns at Birdcage Bookstore.

Emily C. Burns at Birdcage Bookstore.

Natives often complain about how the French, the Germans, Hollywood, the Rainbow people and others love to recreate stereotypical and romanticized images of Native Americans, dancing about campfires clad only in breechcloths and feathers.

Some Natives take offense to these imposters and go to great lengths to expose them via movies, docudramas while others take to Facebook slamming the sham shamans.

Yet there are others who travel abroad and embrace these mock tribesmen, some finding pseudo Native marriage mates for themselves, never to return to the real Indian girls back home.

However it is my belief that unless we imagine ourselves as royal regal’ s descended from Native nobility, we are forever lost to the great American melting pot.

Sad really that anyone would want to discard a romanticized version of themselves to be left with a sterilized image that looks much like a plain, ordinary, generic American. So in reality it is my belief that no self-loving Native American discards the romanticized, stereotypical version of themselves.

In fact, what is the powwow, if not an opportunity to reinvent ourselves as fierce warriors, Itancun (Indian chief), Naca (headsman) or Indian princesses dressed in attire reminiscent of our ancestors. For a moment in time the powwow allows one to become who we imagine ourselves to be.

I love to romanticize myself as who I am, the great, great granddaughter of Wiyaka Wa ste’ Win (Good Feather Woman) younger sister of Itancun Tantanka Iyotanka (The Great Chief Sitting Bull). My great grandfather Tantanka Wanji (One Bull) and his brother Tantanka Ska (White Bull) the warrior who killed General George Armstrong Custer, where the sons of my Unci Wiyaka Wa ste’ Win. When my children lack courage I remind them of who they are and where they come from.

So when I happened across Emily C. Burns at Lily Mendoza’s Birdcage Bookstore located inside Racing Magpie in downtown Rapid City, I was not surprised about the project that had captivated this scholar of history for the past three years, French fascination with the American West and American Indians.

Burns iconographic book published by University of Oklahoma Press titled, “The American West in France: Transnational Frontiers” contains a collection of 105 colored images of the American West from 1867 to 1914 that brings to a modern world, 19th Century Indians that had once visited France with Buffalo Bills Wild West Show and other traveling troupes.

Burns, an Art History teacher at Auburn University in Alabama, said what began as a research project on U.S. artists in France during the 19th Century developed into a work about the French love affair with the American West and American Indians.

Burns said that during her research abroad she found a cache of visual materials related to the American West in France particularly the Lakota in France which piqued her interest.

“When I was researching I found a common practice of non-Natives artists playing Indians in France. I thought about how that presented stereotypes and then I found out that many Native people had also traveled to France in the late 19th Century. I wanted to research the experiences of these Natives, particularly the Lakota,” she said.

One chapter analyzes a postcard correspondence from 1905 to 1915 between a Buffalo Bill performer Jacob Ista Ska from Pine Ridge and a French aristocrat in Europe. Two chapters are about how the West captivated the French imagination which led to the peculiarity of Native and non-Native actors “playing Indians” in France.

Three chapters are about key moments of cultural dialogue through art, the role of painting, sculpture and Wild West performances that challenged the Sioux Act of 1889 (which largely formed the reservations of today) and narratives of the U.S. identities at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair.

Like the French of the 19th Century, Burn’s own love affair with the Lakota brought her to South Dakota where she is working on a research project about the Sinte’ Maza (Iron Tail) photographs and Arthur Amiotte’s France related collages that draw on the tours of his Great grandfather who traveled abroad.

Burns grew up in Rumson, N.J. and studied Art History at Union College, George Washington University and Washington University in St. Louis and currently lives in Opelika, Arkansas.

“The American West in France: Transnational Frontiers” can be found at Birdcage Bookstore and purchased for $45.

(Contact Ernestine Chasing Hawk at sales3@ nativesunnes.today)

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