21 Mar

(Gripping tales from the history that helped shape our local communities)
© Rev. david Gray – 2009

The story of how Native American peoples settled in parts of Manchester and Salford towards the end of the C19th is well chronicled. Their legacy, graves and descendants are part of the weft and weave of the Manchester landscape, while aspects of their culture and spirituality continue to inspire and inform the character of the area. Native American drumming groups abound across the city, while significant numbers of Mancunians of Native American descent still take part in the annual migration to Scotland for the Gathering of the Chiefs. The Celtic-clan system and tribal societies resonate one with the other. Just as, following the dreadful Highland Clearances, many Scots found refuge in lands like Canada and New Zealand whose landscapes shared similarities with their Highland homes, so too did Native North Americans discover in Scotland an echo of familiarity.

But it is not of Scotland that I would write, though the astonishing collision of history that links the McDonalds of Glencoe with the Nez Perce people of North America is well worth the telling. No, it is of the visit of one of the greatest community leaders of the American West to West Gorton that I would speak, though it always bewildered me in my youth that he came here at all.

When Buffalo Bill invited him to take part in his Wild West Show’s European tour, the great Sioux war chief Sitting Bull must have had very good reason to eventually agree to do so. At the Battle of Little Big Horn he had defeated Custer, a man hell bent on wiping out his people and their culture forever. The Wild West show perpetuated the myth of a triumph of civilizing whites over red skinned savages, so why on earth would Sitting Bull have anything to do with it?

Could the answer be that, under pressure from the US government to persuade their peoples to give up their free life and go live on reservations – something those of us who lived through the “slum-clearances” can empathise with – that Sitting Bull and other tribal leaders concluded that Buffalo Bill’s tour would give them some breathing space? Was it possible that these wise-ones foresaw that within a few generations, their involvement in the tour would seed a future in which at least some of their descendants would be living freely under less familiar skies?

Whatever the reason, the fact is that the Northwest of England and communities like West Gorton have benefited enormously from a decision made in the American West.

Want to know about other interesting characters that helped forge the gritty character of Manchester? Look out for future instalments.

© Rev. david Gray – 2009

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