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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Both Cowboys and Indians

Apparently there is no end of surprises when it comes to Indigenous history and the curious blanks and misconceptions about it and Indigenous people generally. For instance, I have not yet met a group of non-Indigenous people who were not surprised to learn that the first cowboys were in fact "indians."1 Originally I hypothesized that this was an urban phenomenon, but this is far from the case, and is representative of an ongoing struggle by certain settler groups to redefine cowboys as explicitly not "indians" and never having been "indians" and it never having been possible for them to be "indians," or to be both at the same time. Of course, this has to do with the land, who has rights and ongoing relationship to it, and who doesn't. Maybe "cowboy" movies are supposed to be light-hearted, but they do present and repeat specific messages. They are quite clear to this day that 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."2 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.

Tom Three Persons, Kainai cowboy competing at the calgary stampede in the 1920s. Tom Three Persons, Kainai cowboy competing at the calgary stampede in the 1920s.
Photograph of Tom Three Persons competing at the calgary stampede, photo HB-(H)-16-183 held in the glenbow archives, taken by Oliver circa 1920s.
Original photograph source used for this site is the canadian museum of history online exhibition on rodeo.

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 new imported breeds of cattle. As a result, many of the earliest cattle and/or horse herds in north america belonged to First Nations and Métis, and some of the original canadian herds were brought north by skilled cattle drivers from those same groups. In many ways, the great north-south cattle drives represented the last uses of the original major Indigenous trade networks of the americas at the time, which did indeed run from the far north to the far south. The archetypal "cowboy shirt" and leather chaps were both developed from traditional Indigenous gear, tufted war shirts and leggings respectively. This is easy to accept in the case of chaps, but for those feeling doubtful about the shirts, consider the fact that "cowboy shirts" today, like most button down dress shirts, have a rounded bottom edges on the front and back, and a distinct v-cut at the sides, usually rounded. None of that is about the shape of the wearer's hips or tucking the shirts in. These cuts and hems reflect the shape of the hide of a four legged animal, and how teh stronger, thicker portions are arranged to sit where the most wear happens.3

In the southern plains and southwest of the rockies 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. First Nations were also prevented from retaining access to water to irrigate crops courtesy of an invidious settler designed licensing system and continuous enclosure and taking of reserved lands. 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.4

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 Indigenous sector of the ranching industry as well as agriculture more generally had been all but destroyed, and many Indigenous 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 states, and europe. Yet there were only so many ranch hand jobs, and many Indigenous cowboys resented being prevented from working for themselves. On top of all this, they had to put up with accusations that they were lazy and lacked entrepreneurial skills. As historian Elizabeth Furniss has written, racism has no need for logical consistency, it just needs to fit the moment.5

The solution Indigenous people developed to the need for work and to keep complex skills fresh 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 themselves 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. By rights this should be a happily ever after sort of story. After all, Indigenous people came up with yet another way to participate in the wage economy, and in fact helped develop a new sector of it. That being the case, there should logically be no complaints about competition with people who think they are white. Except, as already noted, there is no logic to this.

Mary-Ellen Kelm has written extensively about the history of the rodeo in western canada, particularly as it reflects changing conceptions of masculinity in the early twentieth century. There is something more than passing strange that the founder of the calgary stampede was an easterner from the states named Guy Weadick, who himself had arguably dubious cowboy credentials even in his own day.6 He was also quite certain that the only people who could be cowboys were american white men. It took nearly twenty years and the excision of the "american" aspect, but by the 1930s it seemed the only place left for Indigenous cowboys on the mainstream rodeo circuit was in so-called "indian villages" like the controversial adjunct to the calgary stampede. At the same time, cowboys were redefined as males who competed, versus females who "performed" and women were forced out of almost all events. After all, "performers" were therefore not athletes, itself a social category that was leaping up the ladder of respectability since the first modern olympics were held in 1896, and rampant doping was not yet a problem at those games.

Not that any of this kept all Indigenous people out of the mainstream rodeos, though it came close for awhile. In the meantime, the result was a veritable explosion of Indigenous 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.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, April 30, 2018 12:10:20