The comedy of errors in the “Red Indian Show” in Australia.
Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.
When “Colonel” John Stacey arrived in Brisbane with a group of indigenous Americans from British Columbia, Canada, early in 1911, he was surprised to learn that the public was expecting to see a buckjumping show.
But Stacy had in mind a performance “designed to illustrate Red Indian life on the prairies of America, with realistic and exciting incidents calculated to interest and entertain Australian audiences” (The Brisbane Courier 22 March 1911, page 10).
We can only guess that accuracy of this realistic show was less important than entertainment, because Stacy brought the Kwakwaka'wakw People who do not inhabit the American prairies, but the west coast where forested mountains, coastal rivers, numerous bays and islands meet the cold, North Pacific Ocean. Their life of bountiful subsistence and intense trading with neighbouring nations evolved into a complex and highly distinct culture best known for its potlatch as a focus of social, economic and spiritual foundation.
And the Kwakwaka'wakw People were previously recruited to perform in Europe and they performed with defiant boldness, a real initiation ceremony, at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The Brisbane Courier informed its readers (March 1911) that a syndicate that was formed some years earlier in Sydney with the purpose of providing “a Red Indian show to tour Australia” appointed Stacey as its Managing Director. It is hard to say whether Stacey was ignorant or in his entrepreneurial ambition the “realism” of the show was akin to a fantasy of common stereotypes. Stacey went to North America in December 1910.
The first group of 28 recruited people in coastal British Columbia deserted Stacey just before embarking on the trans-Pacific journey. It is possible he told fibs about them becoming frightened of the “big water.” Perhaps a contractual arrangement was not satisfactory; we don’t know the reason.
The second recruitment went better and he brought to Australia 24 men, 6 women, a boy and a girl. With the addition of 4 cowboys, probably not indigenous, the show began shaping as the incarnation of the Wild West - a circus-like popular entertainment that toured United States and Europe between 1883 and 1913.
Soon it became obvious that the “Red Indian Show” would not succeed in Australia and over 30 Native American souls were stranded here. The only material possessions they had were a considerable assortment of their cultural artefacts brought as props for the intended show. They were costumes, masks, carvings, totemic figures, musical instruments, dance accessories and body ornaments. Stacey did not hesitate to sell these significant objects to an artefact dealer Frank Wilkes. And so, the short-changed Kwakwaka'wakw People returned back home.
In 1912 the Australian Museum purchased the Collection from Wilkes, adding substantially to a handful of items from Vancouver Island assembled previously by Captain James Cook during his third voyage of Pacific exploration (1776-79).
Buckjumping is a rodeo-style event in which a rider attempts to stay in the saddle of a “wild” bucking horse for a period of eight seconds. It was a popular entertainment and demonstration of horse-riding skills in cattle-raising (ranching) communities in the US and Australia.
Potlatch is, in a nutshell, a gift-giving ceremonial feast practised by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States. The practice reflects a complex economic system and social organisation.
John Stacey, an American or Canadian businessman, came to Sydney in 1903. “Colonel” was probably a self-awarded title. He tried different business ventures; traded with food products, American pop-corn as a confectionary, ornaments, crockery and pipes. Between 1912 and 1917 he directly supplied the Australian Museum with about 300 artefacts, mostly from the Pacific Islands and northern Australia.