Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly 6:1 (Winter 1986). Copyright © 1986 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Festivals that celebrate the founding of the town or a similar historical event of local or regional significance are common throughout the United States. In this paper I analyze the annual reenactment in Thermopolis, Wyoming, of the Shoshoni tribe's cession to the whites of control over several thermal springs, an event that led to the founding of the town. I show that the reenactment is an idealized interpretation of various historical events recorded and portrayed in poetic form by a group of townspeople with the limited participation of a few Shoshoni families from Wind River Reservation. I argue that the local event is in effect a ritual performance in which the past is reworked to reflect and justify contemporary values and social situations, in this case, white control and development of the hot springs.

My analysis has been influenced by the work of sociocultural anthropologists and folklorists who have described and interpreted the role of contemporary celebrations in American society. Celebrations are cultural performances, dramatic presentations of symbols that may contain elements of play and ritual. Townspeople in Thermopolis call their celebration the Gift of the Waters Pageant, implicitly pointing out the colorful and dramatic aspects of the presentation. The pageant is a type of cultural performance that appears to follow closely a ritual mode since ritual generally confirms the social order and is highly regulated. Cultural performances provide occasions for a group to reflect upon and define itself, to dramatize collective myths and history, to present alternatives to the status quo, and to promote stability in some ways and change in others. For Thermopolis, the reenactment promotes a particular view of history, a view that celebrates the Indians for their harmonious natural lifestyle while relegating them to the past. The reenactment also promotes the development of the springs since this development has appropriately occurred for the social good rather than for selfish economic gain.