Forrest on Burns (2018)

Burns, Emily C. Transnational Frontiers: The American West in France. U of Oklahoma P, 2018, pp. ix + 231, ISBN 978-0-806-1-6003-0

Emily Burns’s Transnational Frontiers: The American West in France examines the intersections—at times beneficial, at others confrontational—of French, non-Native American, and Native American political, social, and cultural interests, starting with the Exposition universelle de Paris of 1867 and ending at the beginning of World War I. The physical setting for these exchanges was France, but the mythical arena for these competing ambitions concerning identity (national, regional, and individual) was an American West as represented by Native Americans, primarily Lakota, who traveled to the continent, principally as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Each of the three parties saw in the encounter the promise of renewal. And each to varying degrees actualized renewal through a performance of self, culture, or nation. This performance owed much to the circulation, appropriation, and repurposing of artifacts belonging to, or featuring, Native Americans encountered at world’s fair beaux-arts exhibitions, ethnographic exhibits at Paris’s Jardin d’Acclimatation and the Musée du Trocadéro, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. 

Burns adopts the model of cultural transfer to account for the uses to which Native Americans and their cultural objects and experiences were put. At the heart of these exchanges were Native Americans themselves, who were sometimes able to negotiate a space defined by “survivance,” a term that includes survival for a culture threatened with disappearance due to despoiling U.S. policy, and resistance, epitomized by the elusive trickster figure whose agency emerges ironically just when he appears to conform to expectations.

In chapter one, Burns introduces the trope of “playing Indian.” If the American West was in many ways synonymous in the French imagination with America, it was an association employed by Americans painters like Charles Volkmar, who, while dismissed as uncultured by fellow Barbizon artists in a conflation of America with an untamed frontier, played Indian as a mark of cultural distinctiveness. Conversely, in an effort to diminish the accomplishments of American painters who offered serious competition to their French counterparts, French art critics and artists like André Castaigne denounced American artists, whose primitive style they perceived as being merely a mask of authenticity behind which they manipulated the profession and the market. Native Americans, however, were two-faced: they wore their Indianness to conform to stereotype in the Wild West Show, but they also duped their French hosts, blurring the line separating personal and performed identities. French portrait photographers often succeeded in forcing their exotic subjects into literal frames to fit ethnographic type, but the latter just as often returned a direct, impenetrable, and unsettling gaze. Moreover, Provençal figures such as Joë Hamman (French cinema’s cowboy), Frédéric Mistral (the founder of Le Félibrige movement that aimed to preserve Provençal culture), and Folco de Baroncelli (an influential gardian from Provence) cultivated relationships with the Lakotas and drew upon their history of resilience. By stressing the parallels between Native American culture and aspects of Provençal culture, they evoked similar forms of government dispossession of indigenous practices.

Burns devotes the next chapter to the works of French painter Rosa Bonheur and American sculptor Cyrus Dallin, who both turned to Native American subjects. For Bonheur, the American Indian reservation doubled for her cherished Fontainebleau, endangered by encroaching modernity. For Dallin, it embodied his strong engagement with his native Utah. Burns situates the political stance of these artists around the third, and devastating revision (1889) of the 1876 Sioux War treaty which the US government used for the appropriation of vast stretches of Indian territory. Bonheur’s and Dallin’s inscription of Native American “survivance” in their works served visually to contest French and US settler colonialism.

In chapter three, Burns examines how the 1900 Paris Exposition was the stage upon which American artists who submitted their work actively mythified the American West to enact liberation from the strictures of French academic practice. To European refinement, Solon Borglum, another native Utahn, countered a natural and spontaneous art. To academic stasis, his Western-themed submissions countered palpable motion. While Rookwood Pottery lacked Borglum’s sculptures’ dynamism—for example, in vases that arrested and imprisoned phantasmal portraits of Indians—it yoked Native American imagery to technical expertise and experimentation in the creation of American art capable of competing with Europe. As for Indian artists and craftspersons, the aesthetic turn to the American West opened a space for their own work, which, while bearing the traces of government-forced assimilation, facilitated their valuable contribution to American art.  

In chapter four, Burns does a case study of Jacob Ištá Ská and his shifting identity through his photographs and postcards. Some photographs reveal his assimilation: he learned English, assumed the name Jacob White, cut his hair, wore the clothing of the colonizers, and worked at the Medicine Root district agency office. However, his postcards to Baroncelli—scenes from the Pine Ridge Reservation and travels through Europe as part of the Wild West Show—express a shared sense of ancestry and resistance. That he signed those postcards with his childhood Oglala name, and some photographs as Jacob White Eyes, betrays a certain control over the terms of his assimilation. While his multiple identities reflect a culture in transition, they also point to trickster tactics in relations with non-natives.

In the final chapter, Burns turns to Buffalo Bill, who metaphorically treated Paris as a new American frontier in need of taming, peopled with feminized dandies in need of virilization. His presence there in 1889 coincided with General Georges Boulanger’s attempted coup d’état. Caricaturists depicted the immensely popular entertainer and the charismatic populist competing for the same audience through a publicity blitz of posters, with the performer cowboy eclipsing the would-be dictator. While some French welcomed Cody as a refreshing mythic brother of Napoléon, others saw another Barnum ready to Americanize, indeed colonize, France.

Burns’s book is beautifully illustrated and well documented, perhaps too well documented. One often senses that she wrestled to reconcile the authoritative pull of too many theoretical positions belonging to a gamut of specialists, so much so that they often inhibit the expression of her own voice. There were not so many cooks as to spoil the broth, however. This project’s objective of situating Paris as the nexus of competing appropriations of the image of the American West, in particular Native Americans, begins where the author’s sources left off, and will certainly serve as a springboard for future studies.