Fifteen-year-old Kade Clark stood shirtless at a water spigot outside the Niobrara County Fairgrounds in Lusk. He reached into a bucket full of red-brown dirt, grabbed a handful, and ran it under the water. Then, he began to paint himself.
“So we look like Indians and stuff. Yea you get it wet, it gets on easier,” said Clark.
Clark is white, and is one of the dozens of people, from toddlers to the elderly, playing Sioux Indians in The Legend of Rawhide, the annual July Pageant and Wild West re-enactment.
The show is a big deal in Lusk, a town with a population of around 1,500. This year about 250 people were in the cast of pioneers and Native Americans, and that’s not counting those who worked behind the scenes.
Ron Nelson, who has been on the Legend of Rawhide Board of Directors for 27 years, said on a good night, between 900 and 1100 people come to see the show.
“You know it’s the greatest thing that we do with this community, one of the good things, we do a lot of good things in our community. But this is one of the things we do that kind of brings everybody together,” said Nelson.
The Legend of Rawhide was written in 1946 as a way to lift people’s spirits after World War II, and the script has changed little since then. It opens with narrator and director Ross Diercks describing over the loudspeakers how pioneers began to clash with the Sioux.
Narrator: And the Indian, taught from birth the law of survival, fought back. He was not taught sympathy, pity, turn the other cheek, kindness to others or self. These were no favoring qualities, but rather weaknesses to be tolerated.
Then, a band of pioneers coming west from Missouri stops for the night by the buttes near Lusk. Among them is a hot-headed young man named Clyde, who, against the advice of the other settlers, makes a promise.
Clyde: The only good Injun is a dead Injun. Never liked ‘em never will. Look at all those famous pioneers, killed lots of Indians. I’m going to kill the first redskin I see.
And he does. With a deafening gunshot, he kills the chief’s daughter, and the tribe demands justice. Either hand him over or they’ll attack. When asked what they will do with him, the tribe says they will skin him alive. Eventually the man hands himself over to save the rest of the wagon train, and the show ends with his skinning.
Jeremy Johnston, the curator for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, said western shows and reenactments like The Legend of Rawhide are appealing for the sense of community they provide. Although, he added, they can leave something to be desired because they often reduce history to ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’
“Yes you put on a good theatrical presentation, but you really lose the complexities of the past. The motivations, the reasons why these people were conflicting with one another. It basically boils down to good vs. evil. The guys with the white hats vs the guys with the black hats,” he said.
Recently Native American groups have taken issue with performances that feature white people in redface. In Laramie, a group of Native American high school students walked out of a production of The Fantasticks earlier this summer because of its portrayal of Native Americans as savage.
Legend of Rawhide board member Ron Nelson said they have rarely had anyone take issue with the show’s content, but he claimed that a few years ago some Oglala Lakota elders came to see the show.
“They wanted to know exactly what was going on. So they came and watched the show and after the show they were very impressed with how we ran the show and how we portrayed both sides,” said Nelson.
Trina Lonehill, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Oglala Lakota, said she doubts any elders actually attended a performance, and that a group of elders she recently spoke with had never heard of The Legend of Rawhide.
“They were actually a little appalled,” said Lonehill. “Some of them actually Googled it right away. I know they were in shock, and they were especially hurt about the skinning and all this stuff. And they were just like 'wow.'”
JV Boldon, who is also on the Legend of Rawhide Board of directors, said he does not think their portrayal of Native Americans is offensive.
“Especially in today’s day and age. Hell, you can dress up as a woman and nobody can portray you as anything different,” he said. “I mean, this is a play. We’re not making a statement that the Indians are bad or the Cowboys or bad or anything of the sort.”
Ron Nelson agreed, and he pointed out that the pageant gives out college scholarships, and in recent years it raised tens of thousands of dollars for flood relief in Lusk.
“We just want to have fun and we want to do great, good things in our community,” said Nelson.
But Oglala Lakota preservation officer Trina Lonehill was not impressed.
“It’s like the NFL mascot issue, you know, the baseball issue. It’s ‘oh we’re honoring them.’ You know you’re not honoring us. It’s offensive,” said Lonehill.
Those involved with The Legend of Rawhide said they hope most people don’t feel that way, and even made an announcement before the show started to drive home that point. Above all else, they said they hope people will come see it and decide for themselves.