Historical reenactments inhabit an uncomfortable territory. The dual nature of performing conflict, both fake and authentic, is an obvious source of unease. But beyond that sits a more complex ache. Reenactments suggest that there is no single narrative of past trauma: the unfinished fight extends its negotiation to the present. Like the pageants themselves, Edie Winograde’s photographs of American frontier battles, on view at Robischon Gallery in Denver, Colorado, are modern fragments of the past, illegible and irrecoverable. Her series Place and Time: Reenactment Pageant shares the saddle with Buffalo Bill in the visual history of performing and documenting America’s story of Westward expansion.
In “July Offensive on the North Platte” (2017), an iconic cavalry line echoes “Ray’s Troops” (1903) by Frederic Remington. In Winograde’s version the horses travel a paved park path, carefully staying right of the solid white line. The trees that frame their trajectory are protected by wire fencing. Everything is in its place. Everything tamed. The simulacrum of authenticity is a nostalgic stutter, according to author Katie Kitamura in her essay “Recreating Chaos,” providing access to the inaccessible and controlling something chaotic. Visuals of The West are so encoded in American culture that Winograde’s photos possess a déjà vu quality. Like the survey photography exemplified by Timothy O’Sullivan, which inspired great painters like Thomas Moran, and the film directors who borrowed their characters and boundless spaces, the Place and Time series implicates American culture as a centuries-long reenactment.
The original reenactor of the American frontier was William Cody, popularly known as Buffalo Bill. In his performances, he crystalized the drama of the West, and print publications like The Saturday Evening Post provided narrative shape and meaning through the replication of iconic figures and scenes. His shows sought to entertain and educate through historical reenactments, such as the attack on the Deadwood Mail Coach. Indigenous participation was a point of pride, just like pageants today, providing the veneer of authenticity. When the Buffalo Bill Wild West show officially launched in 1883, six of the 12 events, which ranged from bareback pony races to shooting exhibitions, were presented by Pawnee performers. By the summer of 1885, Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake), the last of the great Sioux leaders to surrender to the government, joined the show. The presence of actual figures who fought against white Americans helped confirm the success of the exhibition, which attracted one million attendees.
“For many white Americans their only contact with Indian people was through the medium of performance and for many American Indians their only way of representing themselves to white Americans was through performance,” argues Linda Scarangella McNenly in her book “Native Performers in Wild West Shows.” Although the arena could be exploitive, Native participants could also perform identity. Forbidden by the federal government from practicing dances and ceremonies on reservations, the stage became a space to preserve traditions and demonstrate agency.
The West means many things, often contradictory. It can describe the diverse geography of a region; the imperialist nation-building of “Manifest Destiny”; the genocidal policies pursued against Native Americans; or the utopian view of possibilities in the wilderness. Unlike the fixed nature of a monument, performance takes residence in this untidy context. For this reason, American West reenactments are distinct from other historical performances, like Civil War scenes: they evoke the volatile collision of history and geography through continental expansion.
In her essay “No Reservations,” Edie Winograde describes two sites reenacting Custer’s Last Stand. Both presented the history of Lewis and Clark, broken land treaties, tactical missteps by Custer, and written accounts by Native Americans. The notable difference? One featured almost exclusively indigenous performers on the original 1876 battleground. Does the heritage of contemporary participants make for greater historical legibility? In “Platte Bridge Fight Finale” (2017), Winograde presents two covered wagons parallel parked along a group of scraggly trees. Men on Cayuse horses crisscross paths. This horse breed was legendary for its endurance and was historically represented in paintings with Métis people or trappers. The horse transcended white and Native communities, making it an appropriate metaphor for reenactments on the border between the two: the horse belongs to neither or to both.
Reenactments are not simply tributes to nostalgia. In “Decisive Battle at San Jacinto” (2017), blurred bodies emerge like time travelers from a cloud of gun smoke. Civilian clothes hint that the men belong to a militia, charging toward an unseen threat out of frame. Long rifles point to the sky like lances, directing the eye to the distant white A-frame military tents, opposite an audience in colorful summer clothes. Distant telephone wires trace a second horizon. The visible speed of the modern militia men presumably matched the speed of the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, which was over in less than 20 minutes. Although not as famous as the Alamo in the Texas Revolution, when Texans organized a rebellion against the Mexican government, San Jacinto was the final confrontation that ended the war. Generating collective memory through the complex language of performance can restore local history forgotten in the national memory. At the same time, it exposes the malleability of history and heritage.
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