Buffalo Bill Cody was more famous than everyone in the world when he transported his Wild West, but Iron Tail was nearly as famous as he starred in performances in England, France and Italy.
When you act before millions, people are going to remember your face, even without Facebook, and in the long run the Oglala Lakota who was Buffalo Bill’s right-hand man, was indeed best known across the United States for his face.
That’s because Iron Tail, one of three people used as a model by designer James Fraser, was the front man for the Buffalo nickel, also often referred to as the Indian Head nickel, during its U.S. Mint production era of 1913-1938.
Dr. Emily Burns, an Auburn University assistant professor of art history, spoke May 30 at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West on Iron Tail’s role as a cultural ambassador as he traveled to foreign lands.
Burns called Iron Tail a “celebrity performer” since he was often the lead in story lines involving Indian raids and skirmishes in the scripts.
Iron Tail joined the Wild West in 1897 and stayed with Buffalo Bill through 1913. Cody was pulling back from the road leading up to his death in 1917.
Iron Tail shifted to the 101 Ranch show until his own death in 1916. The date of his birth is murky, with 1842 being referred to, but Burns said 1857 and 1861 have also been mentioned.
Accounts of Iron Tail’s life sometimes indicate he fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn against Gen. George Armstrong Custer in 1876 and he and family were involved at Wounded Knee in 1890. Those stories are false, Burns said. There was also a Chief Iron Hail, and those events pertain to him.
Iron Tail usually wore a colorful war bonnet in public and was frequently referred to as a chief. But he never did any fighting.
“He was a career performer,” Burns said.
Following the Plains Indians Wars and the U.S. government’s forced relocation of tribes to reservations, Native Americans were at low ebb in this country.
For the most part, Iron Tail escaped some of the most intense racism and used his personality and public acclaim as he “shaped and challenged” stereotypes, Burns said.
She praised Iron Tail’s “fluidity and adaptability.”
Buffalo Bill, the one-time Indian fighter and scout, pretty much exhibited those same traits. At a time when Sitting Bull, who was a warrior chief, was reviled by many Americans for his role in planning the Little Bighorn massacre, the showman hired him to go on tour in the Wild West.
Their mutal respect in business has been reported. But Sitting Bull was a six-month wonder with the Wild West.
Iron Tail and Cody were friends. They hunted together during breaks from the performances. One indicator of how much Cody valued Iron Tail in the Wild West can be gleaned by reviewing a document in the archives at the Center. It is a monthly pay book for the workers and Iron Tail was by far the highest paid employee at the time.
During his heyday, Iron Tail appeared on postcards, sometimes with Cody, sometimes not, and in posters.
One poster has Iron Tail, up-close-and-personal, facial features appearing strong and regal, wearing his feathers advertising the combined Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill shows near the end of Buffalo Bill’s career and calling him “the last of the great chiefs.”
Another, after the 5-cent piece was issued in 1913 and Iron Tail joined the Miller 101 Ranch group, billed him as basically the symbol of all American Indians.
Iron Tail’s striking looks, exuding wisdom, as Burns put it, positioned him to be somewhat in demand as a model. In addition to adorning those postcards and posters, he posed for sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor.
Burns said Iron Tail had critics who viewed him as an “ignorant remnant of the past,” others as “a sellout.”
However, Iron Tail was one of a limited number of successful Native Americans who found their way out of the government policy sentencing them to reservations as farmers. He found an alternative niché.
In the early part of the 1900s, Buffalo Bill, who once fought natives in battles, was the largest employer of natives in the country through his Wild West.
He was a starmaker. It worked with Annie Oakley, and for Iron Tail to a lesser degree.
Burns noted Iron Tail was more than colleague to Buffalo Bill.
Although likely 90 percent of all photos of Iron Tail show him in native garb and in feathered headdresses, one picture shows him holding a cowboy hat in one hand and a rifle in the other while wearing one of Buffalo Bill’s coats. Who knows if it was a spoof?
In the Old West, especially in movies, much was made of white men and red men slitting their palms with knives and then clasping hands together to cement themselves as blood brothers.
But lending out clothing is something real brothers did.