Arts and Culture

Buffalo Bill in art: Just how funky was he?

"Buffalo Bill first experienced the Wild West; then, he promoted it," says Steve Friesen, head of the Buffalo Bill Museum, who has been working tirelessly to hang the new new exhibit Folk, Fine and Funky: Buffalo Bill in Art. The museum has divided the show into several themes: Buffalo Bill as showman, as scout, as hunter, as businessman and, finally, as a lifelong child, Friesen says. See also: Was Buffalo Bill America's first comic book super hero? "Sometimes good art is as much a matter of the beholder as what art critics tell us we should think," Friesen explains. "So we're asking our visitors: What is folk? What is fine? What is funky? Funky can be funky good, or funky can be funky bad."

The exhibit includes varied depictions of Buffalo Bill: some traditional busts, portraits and realistic scenes of historically significant moments, others more impressionistic. The show includes works by trained fine artists and folk artists alike.

One painting portrays a shootout between Buffalo Bill and Yellow Hair, a Cheyenne sub-chief. "Buffalo Bill took Yellow Hair's scalp. Of course, scalping is not very politically correct these days," says Friesen. "In those days, the Indians were scalping people all over the plains, and scouts like Buffalo Bill did that as a rite of passage. Quite frankly, that earned him greater recognition and respect among the Indians." Friesen has grown accustomed to rebutting jabs from museum visitors who are concerned about Buffalo Bill's dealings with American Indians. "There is always someone out there who wants to be offended," he says. "I call them the politically correct and historically confused. We don't want people to think all Buffalo Bill did was kill Indians. It was kill or be killed. That's all that happened here in the Great Plains. You have people who come and say he killed all the buffalo and killed all the Indians. He advocated for preservation of the buffalo. He was an early hunter, and he was as concerned as anybody else that the buffalo would be wiped out. After the Indians wars were over, he became the Indians' best friend, hiring them to be a part of the Wild West Show and helping preserve their culture when U.S. government policy was attempting to destroy their culture." In Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, a traveling troupe of former cowboys, cowgirls and Indians would reenact scenes and attempt to give audiences an authentic taste of the wild West. "Some say he exaggerated it to give it more entertainment value. Buffalo Bill built his show on the bedrock of experience," Friesen says.

One experience omitted from the museum's show is that of Native American artists. "I don't recall any well known Indian artists that have done a Buffalo Bill image," Friesen says. But Lakota visitors frequent the museum to see Sitting Bull's headdress, Lakota pipes and other artifacts, Friesen notes, and the museum has volunteers from various tribal backgrounds.

The museum will kick off the exhibit at Buffalo Bill's Birthday Bash, a free event from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, February 23, at the musueum. Folk, Fine and Funky: Buffalo Bill in Art will run through January 25, 2015, at the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, 987 1/2 Lookout Mountain Road in Golden. Regular admission is $5. For more information go to or call 303-526-0744.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris