March 13, 2013

Plains riders in Paris Disneyland

Natives in Paris: Meet the Bareback Riders Keeping it Real for Disney

By Dominique GodrecheDisney Village, located one hour from Paris, is, by French standards, huge, with its 7 hotels and 27-hole golf course. It contains Disneyland Park, which like other Disney parks contains the familiar "Lands"--including Frontierland, a theme-park version of the Wild West complete with southwest architecture, horse carriages, saloons, and some Native-influenced crafts and decorative items. But the real place where visitors to get the feeling of Native ambiance is the Wild West Show, due to the presence of Native American riders from different tribes, performing among a multi-cultural team of actors, riders, and racers.

"We hire Natives for their riding skills, because we want the show about Buffalo Bill to look authentic, and the public to believe in it," says Philippe Renaud, the casting director. "So we need the roles to be credible: Natives know how to ride bareback, and very few riders do in Europe. Songs and dances have to look true. That is why we go to the United States and Canada, in search of that authenticity”.

Upon entering the wooden theater, built by the architect Frank Gehry, the visitor is offered a cowboy hat. Original posters from Buffalo Bill’s European tours, old flags, tomahawks, Winchester rifles adorn the walls of a saloon where a live band gives a flavor of the Wild West. Spectators are led in groups to the different parts of the arena: Gold Star, Red River, Blue Moon, Green Mountain Ranch. Buffalo Bill makes an impressive entrance, followed by cowboys; this sets the stage for the spectacular arrival of Sitting Bull and the Native riders. The Natives wear traditional outfits, perform dances and songs, and race bareback. The vast arena becomes a dining room, and serves meals in the Tex-Mex tradition. Since its creation in 1992, the Wild West Show has attracted 9 million spectators.

"We hire mostly Blackfeet, Crows from Montana, Lakotas from south Dakota, Crees from Canada, and Navajos from New Mexico," explains Renaud. "We only visit the reservations where we've stayed in touch with Disney’s ex-riders. From 20 candidates, we select three, usually from tribes where horses are part of their culture.”
Comment:  At least one of the riders--the Navajo Hogue in a Plains headdress--is grossly stereotypical. I don't know about the other riders and their outfits.

Do they need to be wearing traditional outfits at all? Would it shock audiences to see modern Indians in work shirts, jeans, and cowboy hats--the clothing they undoubtedly wear on the job and in rodeos? I guess so.

The article doesn't say much about what the performers do other than ride horses. But Disney's focus on the horse cultures of the Plains is arguably stereotypical even if the shows are accurate. Wild West shows have presented a one-dimensional view of Indians since the 19th century, and this doesn't sound much different.

For more on Wild West shows, see Movie Ledger on History Detectives and Indians Displayed in "Human Zoos."

Below:  "Colten Buffalo, Shawn Hogue, and Timothy Reevis in costume for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Disneyland Paris." (Dominique Godreche)

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