Thursday, 22 October 2015

When the Sioux Came to Hull

T O  T H E   E N D 
O F   T H E   E A R T H



‘And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth,
you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing,
for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered.’

Black Elk, Sioux Holy Man.

In 1888, eleven years after the murder of Crazy Horse, the Sioux, penned in on their reservations and bombarded with yet more land-grabbing treaties, had become little more than a sideshow, a brave memory on the Plains. Yet they were still far from ‘tame’, and their wildness was much in demand in another area – the new phenomenon of the Wild West Show.
Colonel William Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, was the king of Wild West showmen. I learned that his huge entourage of cowboys, sharp-shooters, horses, cattle and buffalo – and, thrilling to me – plains Indians, had at least twice set up camp on Hull’s traditional fairground on Walton Street.
     Later in life, I researched more into Cody’s Hull visits, and unearthed two remarkable stories. At the end of one visit, towards the end of the 19th century, when loading the Wilson Line steamers in Hull’s docks, ready to travel back across the Atlantic to their native land, a number of buffaloes panicked on the dockside and escaped along Hull’s Hedon Road. Cody despatched wranglers and Indians on horseback to round the poor beasts up. The thought of the Sioux and various whooping cowboys racing through the streets of my home town on a buffalo hunt filled me with amazement. It still does. Yet there were other stories which put my hero people onto my native soil.
    
Long Wolf's grave in Brompton Cemetery
Chief Long Wolf, a veteran of the Sioux wars was buried in Brompton Cemetery on June 13, 1892. He was 59, and died of bronchial pneumonia when touring with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Also in his grave rested an Indian girl named Star Ghost Dog, who had died just 17 months old after 
she had fallen from her mother’s arms as they rode together on horseback. In 1997 a British woman, Elizabeth Knight, tracked down Long Wolf’s family in the Black Hills in South Dakota. Long Wolf’s remains were taken home, and he now lies in the ancestral burial ground of the Oglala Sioux tribe, the Wolf Creek Community Cemetery at Pine Ridge. He had a great grandson, John Black Feather, who commented;
     “Back then, they had burials at sea, they did ask his wife if she wanted to take him home and she figured that as soon as they hit the water they would throw him overboard, so that's why they left him in England.”
     Yet in 1888, there were others lost in a strange land. After their final well-attended performance in Manchester, the Buffalo Bill show decamped to Hull where they would board the Wilson steamers and head home. The Sioux, more than any cowboys, were extremely prone to homesickness. Yet Cody paid well and had a genuine rapport and an affection for the Indians, and many great braves and chiefs travelled with him around Europe, including Sitting Bull. He would drink and eat with them after a show, and often slept in their tipis.
    
    
The great Medicine Man, Black Elk.
On that day in question in 1888, three Lakota Sioux, led by the legendary holy man, Black Elk, became lost on the streets of Hull. By the time they found the docks, the tide had gone and their compatriots with it. Only one of the three spoke any English. They knew they were stranded, with only their wages for the last performance. Somehow, with the help of a number of slightly amazed Hull people, somewhat fazed to come across full-blooded American Indians in their native
costume wandering around the city, they managed to find Paragon Station and bought tickets to London. There they joined another Wild West show, Mexican Pete’s, yet had to serve another full year throughout Europe on a dollar a day before they would finally run into their old boss again in Paris in 1889. There are other versions of what happened, placing the events of  this story in Salford, Manchester. Wherever it happened, it seems that everyone wants to claim some historical connection with the Sioux, and indeed, why not.  
     In France, Cody threw a party for Black Elk and his companions, gave him $90 and a steamer ticket back to New York. After two winters away from his people, Black Elk, whose father was a contemporary of Crazy Horse who knew him well, arrived home, to find that the plight of his corralled, starving people was even worse than when he had left. Yet Black Elk has left us a great legacy. In 1932 the writer John G. Neidhardt met the great man, then well over 100 years old, at Pine Ridge, and after many long conversations wrote his story in the classic book, Black Elk Speaks. And to think – he walked the streets, albeit briefly, of my home town.

 
Buffalo Bill's Indians ready for a show

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