Sherman Alexie’s Exploitation of the ‘Buffalo Bill’ Figure in the Poem Evolution

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Evolution by Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie’s Evolution

“Evolution” is written by the famous Native-American poet Sherman Alexie. The poem first appeared in his collection, The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems, in 1992. Alexie highlights the systematic racism and how it confines the indigenous people into a life of deprivation. It also uses the figure of ‘Buffalo Bill’, based on the figure of William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917), and recasts him as a twenty-first-century businessman. This fictional ‘Buffalo Bill’, just like the historical ‘Buffalo bill’, builds his life on the foundation of exploitation of the Natives and thrives while the natives continue to lose their belongings and heritage and are pushed further and further into a state of desperation and despair. The poem ends on an ironical note that shows how the indigenous populations are reduced to a museum piece at the cost of the living members of the community.

Alexie centers the enterprise of objectification in the figure of Buffalo Bill. Also known as William F. Cody (1846-1917), Buffalo Bill, no longer just an historical figure but rather an icon now synonymous with the American West, did at least his share in exploiting Native Americans. An honorary website credits him with helping “his West to make the transition from a wild past to a progressive future.” Given the legendary status history has accorded him, Buffalo Bill may be compared to other colonizing heroes in Western culture, especially those who circulated a dominant ideology as their role in enhancing domination. His ability to disseminate representations stems not only from his ubiquitous stage presence but also from the extensive publicity that presented his image. Empowered with the iconic eminence of a hero, Buffalo Bill possesses the capacity and authority to reproduce and distribute cultural myths. His conception of the “real West” extends from his imaginary relation to American ideals that have themselves been formed by such hegemonic historical representations as Manifest Destiny.

Alexie’s use of Buffalo Bill is significant in that it embodies imagery and reactions from both White Americans and Native Americans. Buffalo Bill is a historically significant character in that he was known to help “civilize the west”. He was prominent in that sense. However, in this poem Sherman uses Buffalo Bill as a symbol that embodies America namely the American government and white people, in their ideals and most importantly in their actions. Through this poem, Alexie manages to create an extended metaphor that highlights the deceit that the American government played against the Native American community and the subsequent usurpation of land, identity, and self that they had to endure. Although this poem is written in a historical light, what occurred in the Native American community is still affecting them to this day. Indeed the Native American people are still suffering from the Buffalo Bills of today, also known as the American government, its oppressing laws and people. Native Americans are in a current oppressed state because they have had their land, their culture /traditions, and most importantly their sense of self (identity) systematically taken away from them.

In “Evolution,” Alexie addresses the compartmentalization and commodification of culture by supplanting Buffalo Bill’s stage antics with a business venture:

Buffalo Bill opens up a pawn shop on the reservation
Right across the border from the liquor store
And he stays open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
And the Indians come running in with jewelry
Television sets, a VCR, a full-length beaded buckskin outfit
it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish.

Alexie re-appropriates history to fit the mold of a “24 hours a day, 7 days a week” contemporaneity. Placing it across the “border,” rather than across the street from the liquor store, Alexie reminds us of the laws forbidding the sale of alcohol on many Indian reservations and the physical and cultural boundaries that continue to encircle them. The liquor store further calls attention to the use of alcohol as a device of suppression. Numerous historical accounts tell of white residents getting Indians drunk as a negotiation strategy to convince them to sign treaties that would yield land (Barr 7). The high rate of alcoholism that persists among Native Americans occupies a prominent position throughout all of Alexie’s work. In “Evolution,” Alexie intimates that the money the Indians obtain from pawning themselves evaporates when they cross the street to purchase liquor. This vicious cycle in which everyone stands to profit from Indians except Indians themselves sustains itself because “Buffalo Bill / takes everything the Indians have to offer, keeps it / all catalogued and filed in a storage room” (6-8). Buffalo Bill scavenges all he can, classifying it with the commodifying gaze of a museum curator. The cycle culminates in Buffalo Bill’s move from collecting to exhibition:

and when the last Indian has pawned everything
but his heart, Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks
closes up the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old
charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter

By seizing the “heart” of the last Indian and subsequently closing the doors of the pawn shop, Buffalo Bill seals out the possibility of repossession. This act deprives the culture of its lifeblood. The new museum freezes “NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES” in place, on display, behind glass cases. The painted over sign recalls the years of government manipulation of Indians in which new treaties invalidated old ones that the U.S. no longer wished to honor. The glossing over of old wounds and forms of cultural exploitation–feeding a people someone else’s idea of what they should be–cap this poem with the absurd reality of a perverse history.

The Buffalo Bill Museum envelops you in an array of textures, colors, shapes, sizes, forms. The fuzzy brown bulk of a buffalo’s hump, the sparkling diamonds in a stickpin, the brilliant colors of the posters–there’s something about the cacophonous mixture that makes you want to walk in and be surrounded by it, as if you were going into a child’s adventure story. It all appeals to the desire to be transported, to pretend for a little while that we’re cowboys or cowgirls; it’s a museum where fantasy can take over. In this respect, it is true to the character of Buffalo Bill’s life.

The fantasy of Buffalo Bill’s life is the fantasy projected onto it by the gaze of a hungry audience. The fact that Bill continues taking everything he can get his hands on of the Indigenous people and pays a pittance for them shows that his sole aim is to selfishly gain and plunder as much as possible – which is an extended metaphor for white settlers’ atrocities and plundering of Native people. A more profound irony is that the cultures of native individuals have been commodified, and they are so separate and lost so much that these individuals have to pay money to see their own cultural remnants put on display in a gross exhibitionistic fashion.

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