Photo by Dominique Godreche
Colten Buffalo, Shawn Hogue, and Timothy Reevis in costume for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Disneyland Paris

Natives in Paris: Meet the Bareback Riders Keeping it Real for Disney

Dominique Godreche

"I was two when I came Disney France with my father, who was playing Sitting Bull’s role in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show," recalls Timothy Reevis, originally from Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. "I stayed 'til the age of nine, then went back to the United States, and returned to Disney in 2008, at eighteen. I saw an ad on the rez, and decided to apply, because it seemed like a great opportunity to see the world and experience Europe,  doing what I love, riding  horses, and getting paid for it."

Disney Village, located one hour from Paris, is, by French standards,  huge, with its 7 hotels and 27-hole golf course. It contains Disneyland Park, which like other Disney parks contains the familiar "Lands" -- including Frontierland, a theme-park version of the Wild West complete with southwest architecture, horse carriages, saloons, and some Native-influenced crafts and decorative items. But the real place where visitors to get the feeling of Native ambiance is the Wild West Show, due to the presence of Native American riders from different tribes, performing among a multi-cultural team of  actors,  riders, and racers.

"We hire Natives for their riding skills, because we want the show about Buffalo Bill  to look authentic, and the public  to believe in it," says Philippe Renaud, the casting director. "So we need the roles to be credible:  Natives know how to ride bareback, and very few riders do in Europe. Songs and dances have to look true. That is why we go to the United States and Canada, in search of that authenticity”.

The exterior of the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show venue. Photo by Dominique Godreche.

Upon entering the wooden  theater, built by the architect Frank Gehry, the visitor is offered a cowboy hat. Original posters from Buffalo Bill’s European tours, old flags, tomahawks, Winchester rifles adorn the walls of a saloon where a  live band gives a flavor of the Wild West. Spectators are led in groups to the different parts of the arena: Gold Star, Red River, Blue Moon, Green Mountain Ranch. Buffalo Bill makes an impressive entrance, followed by cowboys; this sets the stage for the spectacular arrival of Sitting Bull and  the  Native riders. The Natives wear traditional outfits, perform dances and songs, and race bareback. The vast arena becomes a dining room, and serves meals in the Tex-Mex tradition. Since its creation in 1992, the Wild West Show has attracted 9 million spectators.

"We hire mostly Blackfeet, Crows from Montana, Lakotas from south Dakota, Crees from Canada, and Navajos from New Mexico," explains Renaud. "We only visit  the reservations where we've stayed in touch with Disney’s ex-riders. From 20 candidates, we select three, usually from tribes where horses are part of their culture”.

Some riders decide to stay in France, like Shawn Hogue, Navajo from Farmington, NM, a resident since 1997; but others experience difficulties adjusting to their new background. "The main problem is the environment," says Renaud, "that is why, during the casting,  we show videos of the place.  And at arrival in France, the Wild West show crew follows the newcomers, to make it easier.

Hometown: Browning, Montana

Twenty-two-year-old Timothy Reevis, Blackfeet, did not have much difficulty adapting: Raised in France from the age of two, he attended a French school near Disney, through age nine, and has worked at Disney for the last four years. "Growing up in France, I found the young French  more mature than young people in the U.S.," he says. "And I still meet the friends I grew up with. Although being raised in France did not make me French!  But I might have received some influences, living in France from 1992 to 2000.”

Timothy Reevis. Photo by Dominique Godreche.

Inspired by his father‘s performance as Sitting Bull, Tim learned to ride with his cousin, at the age of twelve, on the reservation. "Watching my dad was a great inspiration. I wanted to be as good as him. When I would fall, they would just laugh and tell me, 'Hang on!'  In Montana, rez people ride a lot; we did, as my family owns many horses."

Reevis chooses to live in the heart of Paris, to "get away from the Wild West Show mindset," and because he enjoys the liveliness of the city: "I can go to concerts at night -- jump on a bus, and go anywhere! No need to drive, everything is so much smaller here -- the cars, the streets. It's like a Hobbit town! Where I grew up, in the U.S., everything was so big!"

Reevis admits his fluent French has made his everyday life easier than it might have been: "I might have had a tough time just finding an apartment or catching a train," he says. "Even so, it is sometimes hard to adjust to the Parisians -- they can be crazy! Like New Yorkers: Always stressed, honking their horns, running into each other. It was tough and shocking at the beginning. Fortunately, I found out that not everybody is like that!"

Aside from the urban stress, one thing he learned to appreciate, living in the city, is the uniqueness of being Native American. He enjoys challenging the prevailing ignorance about his culture: "People cannot tell I am Indian. They think I am Mexican, Peruvian…  they would never  think I am a Native, since  most of them have never seen one!  It is good to tell them we still exist!”

Though Reevis has had virtually no difficulty adjusting to Parisian lifestyle, or Disney’s environment, he did have to deal with homesickness. "I felt lonely, and had a hard time for a couple of months," he says. "I called home every day. My  parents would tell me it's normal to feel this way, and my father insisted, 'it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!'  I miss my son, and talk to him every day. And I miss my family, and being in the mountains. It is only people and streets here."

Today, Reevis has no plan of going back, and will continue working with Disney for the forseeable future. "It is so hard to get a job in the U.S.," he says. "Here, I can save money. And when I go back, I will buy a house. For now, I'm taking advantage of the Disney classes for acrobatics and acting. Soon I will bring my son for a visit. Living in France is a good  experience; I've traveled to Greece, England, all over France. And what I like the  most here  is the food!  But I still miss Indian tacos and frybread. No nachos here  in Paris!"

Hometown: Farmington, New Mexico

Shawn Hogue has been with Disney since 1997,  and does not disagree with Reevis' endorsement of Parisian dining. "In the U.S., you eat in 30 minutes, and leave!" he says. "But here, you have to take a vacation for lunch. The French really take pride in the food, so I have learned the details of taste, color -- French culture teaches you to sit back, enjoy, slow down."

Shawn was inspired to go for the Disney job after his brother Lucas was hired. “I visited my brother for vacations, and sent a video resume, as I was already working  with horses in rodeo competitions in New Mexico," he recalls. "My whole family are rodeo competitors. I lived on a ranch, grew up with horses, and  learned to ride bare back as a child.  The Navajo reservation is rodeo-oriented. It's a way of life, and I have been in it all my life."

Shawn Hogue. Photo by Dominique Godreche.

The presence of his brother made the transition fairly easy for Hogue, although he believes that his numerous trips back in the U.S. had made him adaptable by nature. “Adapting was not hard: traveling in the U.S., from state to state, is like going from one culture to another," he says. "But then -- speaking French! I took a class for a year [in school], but arrived here ten years later."

Hogue settled in a vilage outside Paris, and was surprised to discover the curiosity he aroused in the provincial population. "The people are usually intrigued, as it is the first time they meet a native," he says. "They only saw one in a movie or a book. So they sit down to talk, and I have to be ready for questions. Still now. I tell them about the Wild West show, and they say, 'Ah, ok!' They all know about it."

Raised in a traditional Navajo household, in New Mexico, Hogue jumped at the chance to practice his horsemanship alongside a sibling in a far-off country. And today, he  has no plan to return to the States. "It is  hard to find a decent job over there," he says. It's a good life, after all: He lives six miles from Disney in a house he shares with his brother, and visits home every year. In his free time, he plays golf on Disney courses, teaches American football, and strolls around Paris -- even after 15 years, the architecture still fascinates him. "I like to get lost in Paris," he enthuses. "I turn the corner, and, Wow!” Family and friends have visited him numerous times over the years, but he admits he still misses home at times. The Disney experience, though, continues to be professionally satisfying. "I've learned to work on stage, as an entertainer," he says, "and I've learned to work and interact with the French. It's great. It's a quiet culture I enjoy."

"And I love the food," he adds, "though I still  miss Taco Bell!"

Hometown: Hobbema, Alberta, Canada

Twenty-one year old Colten Buffalo, the most tecent recruit to the Wild West Show, arrived in January 2012, and says he has had  no difficulty adapting. "On the rez, I learned to ride bareback as a little boy," he says. "I do not like the saddle. I was in rodeos for three years, in Canada, and the United States. I was surprised to see a flyer on the rez, and auditioned for the job because I wanted to try something new. I was eager to discover Paris and to live in France. And I like it."

Buffalo also has assitance in his new life: His French girlfriend, a horse saddler he met on the show. "I did not learn French, as my girlfriend speaks it, so I can get by," he says.

Colten Buffalo. Photo by Dominique Godreche.

He resides near Disney, and admits he has not seen much of Paris yet. During his free time, he likes to relax, or do a bit of shopping. "With two shows a day, I prefer to rest," he says, "but I will travel in  Europe, as this is my first time outside of Canada."

Before his arrival at Disney, Buffalo had participated in many rodeos in Canada. “I own six horses, and always did a lot of riding as a professional, like the Las Vegas International Rodeo Fair," he explains. "So it was not hard to learn here. And anyway, the horses know the show."

Buffalo plans to improve his saddle riding, and even to learn Roman riding -- in which a rider stands atop two horses, with one foot on each -- but says bareback will always be his preference: "I had my first horse without a saddle -- traditionally, Natives ride bare back. Riding without the saddle, you can feel the rhythm of the horse better."

On the reservation, Buffalo used to work as a lumberjack in addition to his rodeo career, "but it is risky," he says. "If you get hurt, you are out money for a while." At the moment, he's looking forward to his family's visit. "They are happy for me, as I am the first one out of three brothers and two sisters to live off of the rez," he says. He's also excited for the imminent arrival of his recently-hired 18-year-old cousin. "It's great," he says. "I will have someone from the family to hang out with !”

Getting to know the Native riders, the Disney crew, and his girlfriend’s family has been fun, he says, and he really likes the wine and cheese. "It's easy to be in France," he concludes.

But he hasn't forgotten his roots and culture, and admits that despite his enjoyment of the experience, he is not sure how long he will stay. "I do not miss so much the place, but my family and the culture," he says. "The big difference  is that back home, I am part of  the ceremonies. So I will go back for vacations."

* * *

Jean Michel Van Den Nouwland, the senior manager of the Native riders at the Wild West Show,  has witnessed that faithfulness to native culture with a degree of awe. "I was struck, and found it fascinating, when i first started, to see that the Native riders were playing their drums, and sang before each show. I guess it was their mental preparation." 

The Wild West Show celebrates its 20th birthday this year -- and will go on, thanks to the permanent presence of Native American riders. "We are in a time where new generations lose their traditions, and bareback riding," says casting director Renaud. "But the show will continue to run with Natives because it is the will of Disney to hire Indians for Indian roles. And it is very difficult to find that level of riding in Europe, and a style that only Natives have. Even though young generations often do not know how to ride, we are happy to discover that there are still, today, riders like Colten Buffalo. He is the archetype of the profile we look for: He respects his culture, is open minded, and rides as a high level."

In Disney fantasy world, between fiction and reality,  the Native riders share their own reality and identity. Reevis, who chose to come back to France at the age of 18, has learned a lot of real-life lessons during his time in the Magic Kingdom's Gallic outpost. "Living and working here," he says, "I learned to be more team oriented, to cope with diversity, and to communicate with different situations, or personalities, with respect."


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Sonny Skyhawk's picture
Sonny Skyhawk
Submitted by Sonny Skyhawk on
It has been twenty years since the first Indians went to work for Disney in France, and I am elated that some of our young people have taken advantage of the opportunity to work in such a beautiful and ancient country. My best friend in Hollywood years ago, Ivan Naranjo (Blackfeet) left the world of the Western film, because it was waning and the western was disappearing, to follow Phillipe to Paris, and played Sitting Bull for about five years or so. He is now retired and not in the best of health, but his fondest memories were created in Paris Disney. From the Buffalo Bill days of long ago, when our Granpa's & Granma's traveled to France, England and other countries to entertain and share their culture and skills, today these young people from different tribal nations are continuing to pay homage to our ancestors and make us proud. Wopila, and may the Creator keep you healthy and safe. Aho. Sonny Skyhawk, Founder, American Indians in Film & Television. (AIFT)

Victor 's picture
Submitted by Victor on
I hope Disney is extra sensible to their needs, especially because they do not look so happy in any of the photos...