Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Both Cowboys and Indians
Did you know that the first cowboys were Indians? This information can be a bit of a surprise for those of us have lived mostly in cities or towns, where our main source of information about 'cowboys and Indians' is probably the movies. The movies tend to be quite clear on at least one point: to be a cowboy is to be a white man. Many authors seem to agree with this assessment as well. In one of my high school English classes, we were required to read the book When the Legends Die by Hal Borland. It dealt with the rodeo circuit and cowboys, alongside the struggles of a member of the Ute Nation. This man leads a miserable existence, even when he seems to be successful, until he gives up trying to be a cowboy and heads back to nature to be an 'Indian.' This is all quite ironic, because First Nations and Métis often played and play leading roles in the development of rodeo competitions and the bases of the industries most associated with cowboy life.
During the early to mid 1800s, as it became more difficult for Plains First Nations and Métis to move over the prairies freely and the bison were disappearing, many were rapidly shifting economic emphases. They had been successful horse breeders for some time already, but now they moved to apply their horse breeding and bison management skills to the imported breeds of cattle. As a result, many of the earliest herds in Canada and the United States of cattle and/or horses belonged to First Nations and Métis, and some of the original Canadian herds were brought north by skilled cattle drivers from those same groups. The archetypal 'cowboy shirt' and leather chaps were both developed from traditional Aboriginal gear, tufted war shirts and leggings respectively.
In southern Alberta especially, First Nations opted to ranch rather than farm. While it is true that the resulting way of life may have seemed more familiar, the choice was an eminently practical one. They understood the nature of the prairie drought cycles and the prairie soil, and could not afford fancy eastern farm machinery which might have allowed them to work the land in defiance of the environmental conditions. The resulting operations were reasonably successful, providing employment to First Nations members and Métis in the entire range of activities involved, from well-known cowboy activities like herding cattle to blacksmithing and cooking. Women were as active as men, and women were known to own and run their own ranches, as they still do today.
Unfortunately, the federal government didn’t see these businesses as the positive means by which First Nations and Métis were supporting themselves and adjusting to the huge changes imposed by newcomers. Instead, the federal government agreed with certain vocal groups claiming that the 'Indians' were preventing white settlement and competing unfairly with white ranchers. The imposition of the reserve system was accompanied by federal orders for the dispersal and sale of Indigenous-owned herds. By the early 1900s the Aboriginal sector of the ranching industry has been all but destroyed, and many Aboriginal cowboys found themselves forced to go to work as ranch hands on the ranches owned by immigrants into the region from eastern Canada, Britain, the US, and Europe. Yet there were only so many ranch hand jobs, and many Indigenous cowboys resented being prevented from working for themselves.
The solution they developed brought together old and new practices, as we might expect. Long before reserves, and especially after the introduction of horses, Plains First Nations had informal competitions at the end of the day between the skilled riders of the group. This continued into ranch life, with ranch hands playing various games as they relaxed after round ups. Some of these games were so exciting to watch Wild West Show promoters added them to their productions. In fact, the Wild West Shows became alternate sources of employment for out of work ranch hands, one of their few positive features at that time. The combination of games and the example of Wild West Shows came together in the rodeo, where cash prizes could help a successful competitor make a decent living. Some ranch hands took this opportunity, while still others went to work as suppliers to the burgeoning rodeo circuit, which developed with impressive speed.
Still another set back occurred when Indigenous cow'boy's found themselves struggling against racial discrimination, while the women also struggled against sexism. The result was a veritable explosion of Aboriginal rodeo associations that by the early 1990s had not only done excellent work against racism, but also against sexism by no longer arbitrarily or unofficially barring any women from participating in events other than barrel racing.
If you'd like to know more, a great source of information is the Canadian Museum of Civilization's website, Legends of Our Times / Légendes de notre temps.