Title: Painted Critics at the Play

Periodical: Mail & Express

Date: May 26, 1894

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The First Visit of Three Red Men to a Metropolitan Theatre.


Flat Iron, Brave Bird and Little Money Went to Abbey's on Friday. Their Quaint Comments on the Performance.

Maza-ba-las-ka (Flat Iron), an Ogallalla Sioux, the crier or orator of his tribe; Zit-ka-la O-hi-taka (Brave Bird), a Brule Sioux, son of Iron Heel, the famous fighting chief, and the six-year-old papoose of Brave Bird, attended the performance of "Cinderella," at Abbey's Theatre last night. They were accompanied by George C. Crager, the government interpreter, and the representative of the MAIL AND EXPRESS.

Flat Iron is 66 years of age. He never saw a railroad train until two years ago. He never before saw the interior of an entertainment hall or theatre. His knowledge of the English language is confined to one word—"Good." Brave Bird is 34 years old. His first ride in a railroad train was three months ago, and on Friday afternoon he put his moccasined foot for the first time on board a steamboat. Like Flat Iron he had never before seen the inside of a theatre, and had no conception of a stage or its accesories.

He speaks no more English than the old orator. Both Indians are absolutely ignorant of everything that pertains to the white man's civilization except rum and tobacco, and are probably two of the best types of the aboriginal savage to be found in America to-day. It was for this reason that they were selected, so that an observation might be taken of the effect of a sensation which must have been entirely new to them.

Col. William F. Cody is under bond to the United States Government for the safe keeping of the Indians from the several Agencies, and now on leave of absence to take part in the Wild West Show, and it was only after he had fully assured himself that his charges would be properly taken of, and not permitted to commit any act that would vitiate his contract, that he permitted them to go out of his custody. Manager McVicker provided a balcony box where an excellent view of the performance might be had, and it is safe to say that more attentive or more astonished spectators never sat in it.


It was originally intended to bring the Indians from the show grounds, Thirty-ninth street, Brooklyn, to New York in a carriage, but they asked to go on the boat and then to ride in the cars that "go without horses." In spite of the drizzling rain, they sat on the deck all the way over to the Battery so they could see the river craft. The son of Iron Heel had very little to say. His face very rarely changed expression. Old Flat Iron was voluble, and commented freely on everything he saw.

The two big Indians and the one little Indian were in full paint. Flat Iron's rank entitled him to wear three eagle's feathers, and Brave Bird's two. The papoose, called Mu-si-ca Chi-calla, or Little Money, because the white people give him coin, had one small feather stuck in his black hair. All three wore beaded blankets and carried a clean pair of moccasins, each to be put on when they went into the white man's "big tepee." A quick run was made from the ferry to a cable car, but not in time to avoid an army of small boys, who instantly set up a whoop that was fully as loud and shrill as a real Indian yell. Brave Bird got up in the forward corner of the car, where he could command a view of Broadway. Little Money climbed on the seat alongside of him and pressed his flat little bronze nose against the window pane. Flat Iron doubled himself up beside the youngster and didn't sit up straight during the entire trip. He couldn't do it and see the tops of all the tall buildings, and that was what he came out to look at.

It wanted half an hour until theatre time, so a stop was made at Twenty-seventh street, and a light lunch eaten in a chop house—that is say, it was light for all save the old Sioux orator. He disposed of a steak big enough to satisfy a day laborer, and then looked hungry. The wonderful car without horses was boarded again and the theatre was reached just as the curtain was drawn up, much to the amazement of Flat Iron, who at once remarked to Crager:

"That rag has gone up into the sky."


The red men were given places in the box where they could see everything. The interpreter sat between them, so that he could hear their comments and translate them for the benefit of the MAIL AND EXPRESS representative, who sat back of his chair. Brave Bird looked first at the moving figures on the stage. Then, with a quick glance, his eyes took in the tier of galleries. After that he became motionless, and remained in one position throughout the performance. During intermission he gave vent to several grunts and said "Wishtah!" (good) two or three times. Flat Iron was in marked contrast. His face became a study the moment he got in his chair. First he looked at the stage. His lips were parted, and his beadlike eyes were popping out as far as beady eyes could pop. He turned to Crager and patted him on the knee, as though to make sure he was not dreaming. Then he leaned over and looked at the people in the auditorium, His eyes sought the stage again, and he gave utterance to a sound not unlike the Scotchman's "Tut, tut." The old fellow rubbed his chin. He clasped and unclasped his hands. Metaphorically he hugged himself. Pointing to the Grand Chamberlain, he said: "Look at that old man. Why is he so proud?"

When one of the fairies ran off the stage he asked Crager if she had "gone after a medicine man." The glitter of the tinsel brought out a remark that had the fragrance of the forest primeval.

"They got all that gold from my country," said the warrior, "from the Black Hills. Why don't they buy horses with it?"

No explanation had been given to either Flat Iron or Brave Bird of the plot, but without understanding a word that was spoken on the stage the old man began to understand it, and to explain to Crager as it went along. He got a very fair idea of the motif. When the Fairy of the Slipper came on, disguised as an old woman, his comment was:

"She must be very old. She is bent over very much. I don't like that old woman."

The dance in line brought out, "I never saw my people dance like one person like that. It is just like one leg. I know it isn't one leg, but it looks like one leg."

The entrances of the wood nymphs, with their floral headdresses, evoked the sententious remark, "Cabbages."

When the big eggs opened and the fairies stepped out, Flat Iron held up two fingers. "Two," he said, "but they are not chickens. Those eggs are too big."


Again his mind reverted to the tinsel scintillating in the electric light, and he repeated that it must have all come from the Black Hills. He wanted to know how long it took to build in the theatre and how much it cost. For ten minutes he remained quiet. Turning suddenly to Crager, he asked:

"How do they do all this? Who pulls the reins and directs all these people who come out and go away again?"

His mind could not grasp the idea that the movements were voluntary, and the only way he could express himself was to compare the actors with the horses that the Indian breaks and drives with a bit and reins.

The changing of the mice into ponies and the pumpkin into a chariot appealed to the superstitious part of the old Indian's nature.

"An evil spirt helps the men who has this big tepee," was the way it found expression, "but I like to see it just the same. It must be a fine thing to get horses without money."

The practical trend of Flat Iron's mind was shown when Cinderella got into the chariot and was driven half way around the stage.

"That is a very short distance to ride," he said. "Why didn't she walk?"

"Those ponies are too small for me. I can buy better ones at the agency for $25."

The fairy boudoir put the cap sheaf on Flat Iron's amazement. He craned his neck forward and gazed at the scene earnestly. It must have overwhelmed him. There was something pathetic in his comment. With his hand uplifted and speaking louder and more impressively than before, he said: "The great heavenly Father is over all of us—the Indian and the white man alike, but the Indian cannot do any of these things. It is wonderful."

Thisbe and Clorinda, the half sisters of Cinderella, excited disapprobation. "They are not women," said Flat Iron; "they are men who pretend to be squaws, I don't like them."

The taciturn Brave Bird gave a grunt of approval and expressed his opinion:

"I knew they were not women, because they haven't women's voices, but it is wrong for men to dress that way, even in play."

Pedro, the Baron's servant, wears a red wig. "Look," said Flat Iron, "that looks like Red Dog. He was a bad Indian."


In the scene where Cinderella is discovered seated at the fireplace with the pot boiling over the glowing coals the painted critic remarked that the cook was not attending to her business. The loud "me-ou-uw" that preceded the entrance of the Black Cat caused both Indians to exclaim simultaneously "A cat!" Flat Iron laughed outright when Mr. Abrahams, in his grotesque make-up, leaped on the stage. Even Brave Bird allowed his features to relax for a moment. The cat hadn't been on the stage five seconds before Flat Iron called attention to the feet of the hind legs.

"He washes his face like a cat," he said, grimly, "but his hind legs are the legs of a man."

When the shovel and tongs danced a jig the old Indian saw the strings that held them up. "That is not magic," he said; "I see the rope on that shovel. Why is that shovel covered with gold? That is a waste."

The grand bal champetre aroused great admiration.

"That is good, that is good," he kept on saying. Then, as the stage filled up with fairies and nymphs: "I am 66 years old, and have seen many thousand buffalo, but I never saw so many women before at one time."

There was a suggestion of pale face human nature in the remark, "I like that squaw with the pretty dress." (Cinderella.)

Little Money was so absorbed that he paid no attention to the queries put to him by Crager as to how he was enjoying himself. Once he turned his head half way around and said, "Wishtah!" and then shrugged his shoulders to indicate that he did not wish to be disturbed again.

The apotheosis or transformation scene absolutely transfixed Flat Iron. Resting his chin on his left hand he leaned forward, shading his eyes with his right. His pose was perfect, and, with his strong face outlined against the darkness, into which the body of the house was plunged to emphasize the glare of the stage, he looked like the familiar picture of one of Cooper's Mohicans peering inquiringly at some unfamiliar object. His amazement was too great for words. All he did was to cluck out his "Tut, tut," while the scene lasted, and as the curtain fell he turned to Crager and said:

"The rag has fallen out of the sky."

Note 1: Vincent S. Cooke (died 1917) was city editor of the Philadelphia Press and in 1888 joined the staff of the New York World. [back]

Title: Painted Critics at the Play

Periodical: Mail & Express

Source: McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West , MS6.3772.041.1 (Crager scrapbook)

Date: May 26, 1894

Topics: Lakota Performers

Keywords: Abbey's Theatre (Organization : New York, N.Y. : 1893-1896) Actors and actresses American Indians Brulé Indians Cinderella (Legendary character) Civilization Electric lighting English Indian beadwork Indian blankets Indian children Moccasins Oglala Indians Orators Pantomime Plays Railroads Sioux Nation Theater Translators United States--Politics and government United States. Office of Indian Affairs

People: Cooper, James Fenimore, 1789-1851

Places: Black Hills (S.D. and Wyo.) Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)

Sponsor: This project is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Geraldine W. & Robert J. Dellenback Foundation.

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