The intertwining lives of Oglala Lakota Chief Iron Tail (Siŋté Máza) and William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody offer a fascinating glimpse into a unique period of American history. Iron Tail became one of the most recognizable Native American figures in the early 20th century, partly due to his association with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Iron Tail's legacy was engraved onto the currency of America in 1913, when sculptor James Earle Fraser drew inspiration from a portrait he had previously made of the Sioux chief for the image on the new nickel. "Iron Tail," Fraser wrote," was the best Indian head I can remember. The coin, with Iron Tail's profile on the "heads" side and a buffalo on the obverse, or "tails" side, became a widely recognized symbol across the United States, known alternately as the "buffalo" or "Indian head" nickel.
Buffalo Bill Cody, a man of many talents and a pivotal figure in the Wild West, was known for his Wild West shows that brought the stories and characters of the American frontier to life. Cody's shows were a mixture of entertainment and history, showcasing elements of frontier life, including the participation of Native Americans. It was through these shows that Iron Tail's path crossed with Cody's. As a performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Iron Tail not only shared his culture with wide audiences in America and abroad but also formed a personal bond with Cody. They were more than costars. They were friends.
The friendship between Iron Tail and Buffalo Bill transcended the boundaries of their professional lives, highlighting mutual respect and understanding. This bond reflected the larger narrative of the Wild West, where diverse cultures often intersected and interacted in complex ways. Iron Tail was a frequent guest of Buffalo Bill's on long elk and bighorn sheep hunts between Wild West tours.
In the spring of 1916, with the European cities and countries they had once visited embroiled in The Great War that would later be called World War I, a poignant drama between Buffalo Bill Cody and Iron Tail unfolded in the heart of America. It was a story of friendship, honor, and the inevitable passage of time, featuring two of the most iconic figures of the era - Chief Iron Tail and Buffalo Bill Cody, both in the final chapters of their lives.
Buffalo Bill had lost control of his famous Wild West show and was now performing with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch show. Ever the loyal friend, Iron Tail, now 74 years old, was also touring with Miller Brothers. At a stop in Philadelphia, Iron Tail was stricken with pneumonia. The mighty chief, who had once roamed the vast plains and faced countless adversities and had traveled the world with Buffalo Bill, educating and advocating for his culture, found himself battling a different kind of foe within the sterile walls of St. Luke's Hospital.
Meanwhile, Buffalo Bill Cody, the legendary showman, faced a dilemma. This was no longer Buffalo Bill's Wild West. He was an employee of the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West show, and his bosses told him that the show must go on, and Bill was obligated to move to Baltimore, Maryland, for the next performance. Iron Tail, the respected and venerated Oglala chief, lay alone in a strange city, surrounded by faces he did not know and voices he could not understand.
A telegram to Buffalo Bill failed to reach the famed showman in time, and rather than being rushed to Major Israel McCreight's home in Du Bois, Pennsylvania, for care at The Wigwam, Iron Tail was placed on a Pullman car bound for the Black Hills. Tragically, on the morning of May 28, 1916, at a stop in South Bend, Indiana, a rail porter discovered that Chief Iron Tail had embarked on his final journey. His body continued its solemn voyage to its final resting place. Buffalo Bill, upon hearing of his friend's passing, was filled with regret. He lamented that he wasn't able to be by his friend's side in the hospital and that he hadn't received the telegram that might have altered the course of events.
Iron Tail's final journey did not end in Indiana. His body was transferred to a hospital in Rushville, Nebraska, and then to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. There, amidst the rolling hills and under the wide expansive sky of the reservation, Iron Tail was laid to rest at the Holy Rosary Mission Cemetery on June 3, 1916. The plains that had once echoed with the sounds of his people now silently received one of their most distinguished sons.
Buffalo Bill, moved by the passing of his friend, vowed to honor Iron Tail's memory in a manner befitting his legacy. Just as he had once promised to mark his friend Texas Jack Omohundro's grave with a fitting memorial, he announced that he would place a granite stone on Iron Tail's grave, adorned with a replica of the Buffalo nickel – a lasting tribute to the chief who had been not only his friend but a symbol of the Native American spirit on that iconic coin.
But destiny had written a different ending to this tale. Buffalo Bill, the scout, the showman, the bridge between two worlds, passed away on January 10, 1917, just six months after Iron Tail. He never had the chance to fulfill his vow. But the friendship between Buffalo Bill and Iron Tail was remembered by the Lakota people. Several years after the death of Buffalo Bill, a delegation of Lakota visited the grave of the great showman on Lookout Mountain in Colorado. Chief Flying Hawk, in a gesture that bridged the earthly and the spiritual, laid his war staff of eagle feathers on the grave. And then, in a poignant homage, Spotted Weasel and each of the veteran Native performers of Buffalo Bill's Wild West placed a Buffalo nickel on the imposing stone.
This simple act, laden with symbolism, spoke volumes. It was not just a tribute to Buffalo Bill or Iron Tail but a commemoration of a bygone era. The Indian, the buffalo, and the scout – these figures had been emblematic of the early history of the American West since the 1880s. In that moment, on that mountain, they were remembered, not just as symbols, but as flesh and blood, as people who had lived, loved, and left an indelible mark on history.