The poem starts by taking a real figure from American history, "Buffalo Bill," and reimagining him in the modern world. But first, it's useful to understand some context about the original Buffalo Bill (1846-1917) to whom the poem alludes:
- This Buffalo Bill (real name William F. Cody) fought for the Union in the American Civil War and later served as an army scout in the Indian Wars. But he is most famous for his "Wild West" traveling show, which repacked and repurposed native traditions—and traumatic experiences—for entertainment.
- In addition to displaying skills like equestrianism and archery, American Indian actors participated in sensationalized re-enactments of historical battles.
- The original Buffalo Bill, then, was a white man who thrived on exploiting American Indians—and that's exactly what this Buffalo Bill does in the poem.
The first stanza describes how Buffalo Bill senses an opportunity. He sets up a pawn shop on a reservation, a tract of land granted by the U.S. government to indigenous peoples. Historically speaking, the reservation system is itself the product of exploitation and oppression.
A pawn shop, meanwhile, is a kind of store that offers people financial loans in exchange for material collateral. In other words, people can trade valuable items—jewelry, electronics, etc.—to the shop in exchange for money. The seller then has a certain amount of time to buy the item back (typically with interest) before it's resold to other customers.
The mention of a nearby "liquor store" further hints that Bill is taking advantage of a common problem on reservations: alcoholism. The shop, the poem implies, is meant to catch people at their most desperate, when they're willing to sell anything—including themselves—for a drink.
That the store stays open all day, every day implies that Buffalo Bill is eager to make a profit. The enjambment in this stanza rushes readers from one line to the next without respite, as if the poem itself is a store with its bright lights on at every hour of the day.