Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 2008


Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 1, Winter 2008, pp. 3-26.


Copyright 2008 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


As a literary work initiated and directed by a committee of women, The Pageant of Paha Sapa captures the zeitgeist of the post Arontier era through the eyes of the influential women of one small town. Like all origin myths, this script presented the current populace as the rightful heirs of the place and its resources, having won them through persistence, struggle, and divinely ordained destiny. The pageant's message was that "civilizing" influences had transformed the former Indian paradise and frontier hell-on-wheels into a respectable modern community. This theme of social evolution was typical of the larger pageant movement; however, unlike the eastern towns, Custer, South Dakota, could not draw on its past for moral authority. The town began as a mining camp, with the rootlessness and disorder of any western gold rush town, compounded by conflicts with Indians trying to drive the white trespassers from their reservation lands. History as expressed in Custer's pageant leaped from primitive perfection to historic chaos to a modern, orderly community. Modifications to the script and performance over the years imply points of tension between the local women's early post-frontier origin myth and new views of frontier history at mid twentieth century.


The postsettlement years in the western United States were a time for towns to reflect on their short and often checkered histories. With the challenges of frontier life behind them, townspeople sought legitimacy through stories of their founders. During the first decades of the twentieth century, townspeople performed these stories, mythic or real, in colorful historical pageants. In performing and witnessing the historical dramas, cast and audience internalized their local story and awoke to their town's role in the march of progress.

During the rise of the Progressive Era at the turn of the twentieth century, politicians and activists from a wide range of political, educational, economic, and geographic backgrounds embraced the idea that government could institute social reforms that would promote equality, social harmony, and morality. Along with a concern for the rights of workers, children, and women, progressives sought to improve the lives of individuals of all classes through outdoor recreation, communal activities, and exposure to the fine arts. Among the tangible results of this movement were public parks and playgrounds, public murals, settlement houses, and youth organizations.