On top of Lookout Mountain, past roads named Moonview and Indian Paintbrush, François Chladiuk inscribes a message in Old Lakota in an open book.
“Wakan ni un,” the 65-year-old Belgian says to the couple standing over him at Buffalo Bill’s Pahaska Tepee gift shop and café. “It’s a quote from Walter Littlemoon. It means, ‘Live in a sacred manner.’ ”
The glossy, 276-page hardcover, titled “Lakota Performers in Europe: Their Culture and the Artifacts They Left Behind,” is the third from author Steve Friesen — who until his retirement in October was the president of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave on Lookout Mountain.
Friesen’s good friend Chladiuk is a Belgian collector of American West artifacts who helped with the book, which published in June. Some of Chladiuk’s most prized artifacts, particularly those used during the 1935 World’s Fair in Brussels by Lakota performers, have enjoyed their own exhibit at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels.
“As a collector, I appreciate and respect the items, and I respect the people that the items belonged to,” said Chladiuk, clad in a cowboy hat, oversized turquoise bolo and hippo-skin Lucchese boots. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m never going to sell it. My greatest wish is that it should end up in a museum. … The story around the collection is maybe more important than the collection itself.”
As part of Chladiuk’s first visit to the U.S. since the book was published, he and Friesen held a meet-and-greet and book signing Friday at the café next to the Buffalo Bill Museum, where about a dozen people showed up in cowboy boots and hats to buy personalized copies and sip hot chocolate at wooden tables.
It’s a canny bit of timing, given the the record crowds at the National Western Stock Show, which continues through Jan. 21 and itself celebrates an enduring idea of the Old West.
“The Stock Show got its inspiration from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and other similar shows in the late 19th century. And like this museum, they tap into the legend or myth of the west that Buffalo Bill helped create,” said Friesen, 64. As the museum’s director, Friesen has been credited with transforming a roadside attraction for an entertainer into a first-rate collection of Old West mythology, which last year attracted about 70,000 visitors.
“Buffalo Bill brought his former foes, the Lakota, into that experience, and because of him and the other Wild West shows, their culture is valued today rather than completely eliminated — which was the goal of the U.S. government at the time,” he said.
As Friesen has written over his two-plus decades at the museum, the reality of the traditional Western myth includes not only the contributions of white men and American Indians, but also women, vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) and the African-Americans who migrated west as Buffalo Soldiers.
Wild West shows, once ubiquitous in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were not tools for exploitation but rather cultural assertiveness, Freisen said, despite the criticisms of the “politically correct but historically confused.”
“That is a kind of paternalism that smacks of what the reformers were doing in the late 19th century,” he said, noting that people like Chief Luther Standing Bear graduated from Wild West shows to become successful advocates for American Indian rights. “We give the (Indian performers) very little credit when we say these shows only exploited them.”
Friesen and his wife flew to Brussels over the summer, just a few months after the 100th anniversary of Buffalo Bill’s death, to spread the same message at Chladiuk’s “Western Shop.” The 15th-century building near Brussell’s Grace Place is stuffed with Navajo snap buckles, Stetson hats and Rockmount Ranchwear shirts that Chladiuk sources from Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
The international process of trading American Indian artifacts and telling their stories keeps their culture alive, Freisen added, provided doing so is rooted in cultural respect and facts.
“Look at the information. Look at the history before making your mind up,” he said. “Don’t just be building this up in your own head.”