Say what you will about William F. Cody: He invented the West. Or the public’s notion of it, anyway. In a showbiz spectacular that toured through the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the man called Buffalo Bill calcified the tales we still know by heart. But stand at the cherry wood bar of his Irma Hotel, named for his daughter, and you’re deep into an explosion of new perspectives on the old cowboy idea.
After exploring territorial plains and plateaus as a Pony Express rider and army scout, Cody started a traveling show in 1883 filled with sharpshooters and action-packed skits. The whiz-bang production is a big part of why, when we think “cowboys,” we picture gunfights rather than low-drama bovine herding. It was progressive, kind of; women earned equal pay, and the cast included Eurasian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican performers. But Native American players reenacted daily the violent battles that killed their people or, in the minds of the audiences, justified their persecution. The wildly successful show toured Europe and played before Queen Victoria, and later funded the upstart town of Cody, east of Yellowstone National Park.
At the Buffalo Bill Center of the West near the Irma, the impresario is revered, but also examined, in exhibits that question his self-mythologizing claims, like whether he truly rode for the Pony Express. But the complex holds five institutions, like the Whitney Western Art Museum, where contemporary Native American art hangs next to Thomas Moran landscapes. Or the Plains Indian Museum that contextualizes how area tribes had far more gender equality than the encroaching white men could conceive.
“I want people to see a broader Wyoming,” says Rebecca West, curator of that museum as well as a Women in Wyoming photography exhibit that went on display in 2019, marking 150 years since the state was the first to grant women suffrage. With endless galleries and interactive exhibits—even at the Cody Firearms Museum—thank goodness standard admission tickets last for two days.
If the Buffalo Bill Center is notable for its grand size and scope, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center just outside town offers its inverse. During World War II, the snowy, wind-scoured site became a Japanese incarceration camp. Though the story of the U.S. government’s imprisonment of thousands of innocent citizens and residents is familiar to Northwesterners, Seattle’s streets mostly tell the history of wrenching removal. Here in Cody, thoughtful exhibits spell out the reality of the camps, not only the nuts and bolts of internment but how the experience ravaged family bonding and generational ritual, a whole population institutionalized.
And yet Cody’s main street still sports all the western wear stores and charming saloons one could want from a yeehaw vacation; Yellowstone’s bison herds thunder through the park a short drive west. No dearth of nostalgia here; a mock shoot-out plays out at the Irma on summer evenings. But by expanding the boundary of what the West means, the town built by a long-dead showman found a place in the twenty-first century.
Cody Side Trips
Launched last year in Cody for a guild of artisans creating artful objects, By Western Hands is like a fine furniture museum where you can (and should) touch the engraved saddle, embroidered leather cushion, or honey-colored wood rocker. Most are for sale, but don’t miss a gallery of award-winners, like a thought-provoking foosball table reimagined with cowboys and Indians. By Western Hands, 1007 12th St, Cody
In summer, Cody’s outdoor night rodeo is more than a daily display of horsemanship and traditional cowboy sport; it’s one of the most competitive bull-riding venues in the state. Jun–Aug, 519 W Yellowstone Ave, Cody