As David Bowie sang "Heroes" at the recent benefit at Madison Square Garden, crowd shots of uniformed New York firefighters and police flashed across television screens.
Spontaneous cheers confirmed these public servants' new status as American heroes recognized for their collective response to terrorism. Only a short time ago, public-safety workers -- particularly cops -- were not America's role models. Likewise, postal workers were punchlines, not patriots.
Asked a few months ago to select this country's heroes, most people picked professional athletes, says Steven Friesen, director of the Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum and an expert on American folk culture. But September 11 altered everything.
The concept of what identifies good guys and bad guys and how those labels shift fascinates Friesen. His inquiries into this sliding scale shaped Heroes and Villains of the Old West, a yearlong exhibit opening November 4 at the museum. Because Friesen started putting the show together months ago, there's no specific reference to recent events. Still, the folklorist hopes a fresh encounter with twenty characters from the second half of the nineteenth century -- represented by such artifacts as Wyatt Earp's hat, Geronimo's war club and locks of Buffalo Bill's hair -- will leave viewers with plenty to ponder.
"It's been very hard for us to find heroes in the last fifty years," Friesen says, partly because "even heroes have feet of clay. There's been too much debunking and not much looking at what the heroism was. What we're trying to say is that heroism and villainy is often a matter of perspective. We have our own ideas of who are true heroes and villains."
Visitors will be encouraged to write their ideas on a chalkboard at the exhibit.
People living in a world awash in media can gain perspective on current events by looking back to when concepts of good and bad grew out of a shared frontier experience, Friesen suggests. "Look at Custer after the Battle of Little Big Horn. The myths created this larger-than-life hero. Maybe our nation needed it at the time," he says. A century later, though, General George Armstrong Custer is seen as a pompous, possibly evil man.
Some who were considered foes in the nineteenth century, such as Native Americans vilified in popular culture, are now viewed in a friendlier way. Apache chief Geronimo, for example, was described as a savage, but historians now know that his raids came in response to the slaughter of his family by Mexican troops. When the U.S. Army sought to claim land in the Apaches' southwest territory, it joined in the conflict. Geronimo, cast as the outlaw, fought a number of battles, escaping capture several times. Eventually, the Indian leader surrendered and, in retirement, became a celebrity who rode in President Teddy Roosevelt's inaugural parade.
"He may have been more of a curiosity than a hero," Friesen admits. But other Indian leaders, from Sitting Bull to Crazy Horse, once portrayed as devils, are now considered noble leaders. Some reputations have gone through several changes. While Buffalo Bill Cody was popularly acclaimed in the Old West, his image became tarnished over time, and he was blamed for the near-extinction of the wooly herds that once roamed the plains.
Not true, says Friesen, warming to the topic. Buffalo Bill fought for the animals' survival when it became critical. Indeed, Buffalo Bill can been seen as a "man ahead of his time," he says. "He advocated the vote for women and equal wages. As a showman, he took the Indians, gave them equal pay and an opportunity to improve their lives."
In both the Old West and our new international realities, heroes can be zeroes and chumps can be champs.
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