What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Explore : American West

Places

When Variety Theaters Tantalized the Frontier West

In 19th-Century Spokane, Risqué Performances Set off a Battle Over Civil Morality

A map from the 1890s indicates how mining, water power, and other enterprises were turning Spokane into a boom town. Art courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Holly George
November 6, 2017

In the spring of 1897, Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review published an exposé of its city’s thriving red light district—known as Howard Street. The newspaper lingered on distasteful scenes in variety theaters with names like the Comique or the Coeur d’Alene: Places where a man could pick up a game of keno, watch a show, and—for the cost of a drink—enjoy the flirtations of “waiter girls” in short skirts. The most controversial and profitable feature of the Howard Street varieties were their …

Read More >

Identities

Why Sheep Started So Many Wars in the American West

Each Year, an Idaho Festival Honors the Shepherds Who Sought to Keep the Peace

Tending sheep on the Navajo Reservation, May 1972. Photo by Terry Eiler/Wikimedia Commons.

By Adam M. Sowards
October 5, 2017

In early October, when the leaves turn golden and the shadows of the Sawtooth Mountains lengthen, the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival moves through south central Idaho. The festival, complete with a sheep parade, sheepdog trials, and a wool fest, celebrates the long relationship between sheep and their human companions. 

Sun Valley, Idaho, is synonymous with New West wealth, but it sits in the Wood River Valley, where more humble ranchers and farmers have long made their living. In the …

Read More >

Identities

The Faux “Sioux” Sharpshooter Who Became Annie Oakley’s Rival

By Reinventing Herself as Indian, Lillian Smith Became a Wild West Sensation—and Escaped an Unhappy Past

Lillian as Princess Wenona, with beloved horse “Rabbit.” This was probably taken around 1915, while she was contracted with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West. Image courtesy of University of Oklahoma Libraries, Western History Collection, Nesbitt-Lenders Collection, No. 601.

By By Julia Bricklin
May 5, 2017

At about 10:30 a.m. on the morning of August 3, 1901, more than 100,000 people jostled to catch a glimpse of Frederick Cummins’ Indian Congress parade at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York. The crowds shrieked with excitement when they heard the Carlisle Indian Band strike up a tune, and drew a collective gasp when three celebrities appeared on their respective steeds. There was Geronimo, the aged Apache chief, and Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary, the frontierswoman and scout of …

Read More >

Artifacts

American Indians, Playing Themselves

As Buffalo Bill’s Performers, They Were Walking Stereotypes. But a New York Photographer Showed the Humans Beneath the Headdresses.

Chief Iron Tail original portrait

By Michelle Delaney
January 27, 2015

Chief Iron Tail, photographed by Gertrude Käsebier

Read More >

Encounters

I Discovered America Through Japanese Eyes

What Happened When a Kid From Chicago Became an L.A. Correspondent for Japan’s Largest Newspaper

Scarlett Johansson

By Ari Ratner
October 28, 2014

“Scarlett, Scarlett!” I waved pleadingly. Across the red carpet she sauntered, her eyes invitingly meeting mine. There I stood—a 24-year-old Jewish kid from Chicago decked out for the 77th Annual Academy Awards with my overgrown eyebrows and a cheap rented tux—face-to-face with America’s luscious girl-next-door, Scarlett Johansson.

Read More >