July 24, 2010

Cowboy defends Cowboy Day

A Nez Perce/Cayuse man and proud "Cowbindian" defends the National Day of the American Cowboy:The Cowboys of the cattle trails between 1866 and 1889 were mostly Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans not the John Wayne Hollywood stereotype you suggest. In modern times those of us that still work as "Cowboys" come in all colors, creeds and nationalities, we work long hours for low pay doing what we do and none of it has anything to do with "America's white, Christian philosophy of Manifest Destiny." As one who decries stereotypes I'm surprised to see you embrace this one so wholeheartedly. But then, propaganda and stereotyping is just the bending of an image to fit one's own agenda, isn't it?‎"Mostly" blacks, Hispanics, and Natives? Some were, but the majority? I doubt it.

"Modern times"? That's nice, but the resolution isn't solely about the modern cowboy. Read it again if you're not clear on that point.

The first part of the resolution says cowboys helped "establish" America. How exactly did they do that? Give me a rundown on all the establishing tasks they did that didn't interfere with Native land and treaty rights. Don't include the cattle drives you mentioned because those did interfere with Native land and treaty rights.

Even more than the cowboys of the past, the resolution is talking about the iconic, archetypal cowboy of legend. Not the actual cowboys of any era, including a narrow 23-year range in our 230-year history. This iconic figure was indeed a white male Christian who was indeed involved in the genocide of Indians, either directly or indirectly.

If the resolution were talking about real cowboys, it wouldn't describe how transcendent they are. It wouldn't talk about them in gushing terms reserved for Founding Fathers and other national heroes. It would talk about people with flaws and shortcomings as well as positive qualities, not saints.

In short, no sale. Try again.

Round 2I think, Rob, The term "celebrate" would indicate an acknowledgment and respect for the traditions of the skills, lifeways and work of the American Cowboy not their "flaws and shortcomings" as those are evident in all human beings. As a Nez Perce/Cayuse man and proud "Cowbindian," my family comes from many generations of the ranching cowboy life style. The resolution describes the cowboy as "transcending" ethnicity, gender, geographic boundaries, and political affiliations not as "how transcendent they are" and in my experience, this is true. I guess honesty, integrity, courage, compassion, respect, a strong work ethic, and patriotism, strength of character, sound family values, and good common sense, and being an excellent steward of the land and its creatures, living off the land and working to protect and enhance the environment are really crappy things to aspire to, in your point of view.

Not tryin' to sell you a thing, Rob. Just livin' the life and thought it was kinda nice that a nominal "National Cowboy Day" was called to recognize those that do.
JRey Crow responds to this:This gushing and unqualified language of this "proclamation" suggests it originated on the desk of a lobbyist or public relations practitioner for a ranching related trade organization.

Marketers of every product, industry, etc. want to have a day, week, or month in "honor" of whatever they're selling. There are countless examples of successful efforts to this end.

It is no more reasonable or truthful to say that all "cowboys" (or any other group) possess "honesty, integrity, etc." by virtue of their membership in the group than it would be to say the opposite--that as a group, "cowboys" are dishonest, lacking in integrity, compassion, and so forth.

Though this proclamation is an example of an attempt to promote a "positive" stereotype, it's still stereotyping as I see it.

Likewise, claiming that ranching as an industry is "beneficial to all states," much less an excellent example of "stewardship" of land or animals, is highly controversial. I prefer strong wolf populations to private profit, for just one illustration.

My understanding is that, at most levels of government, these kinds of petitions are often granted, if for no other reason than they cause no apparent harm.

No offense intended to cowboys--who ever they are, who I admit I have no standing to judge as individuals.
Good response, JRey. I agree.

Final thoughts

Our cowboy didn't address most of my points, but I'll add a few more:

Cowboy demographics are almost irrelevant to my argument. America has always had minorities and so has the subset of America known as cowboys. The presence of minorities doesn't negate the fact that white male Christians have dominated America since the beginning.

If people transcend things, they're transcendent by definition. Transcending ethnicity means cowboys existed in some transcendent state where their ethnicity didn't matter. Wrong.

Most cowboys were white and they contributed to America's white Christian philosophy of Manifest Destiny. They didn't transcend ethnicity, they were as ethnic as their fellow Americans. No doubt most of them believed in white superiority.

This proclamation isn't about what cowboys "aspire" to. It's about what they've already achieved. I'm challenging that propaganda message: that mostly white cowboys made America great by taming the land, turning wilderness into fenced-off ranches, and--not coincidentally--ignoring Indian treaties and rights.

I'm glad you're living your life, cowboy friend. If the proclamation had limited itself to today's cowboys, I probably wouldn't have criticized it. But it made sweeping claims about the cowboys' role in history and legend. Those I criticize.

Anyway, have a happy Cowboy Day, everyone!

For more on the subject, see How America Became Cowboy Country, Movies Convey "America's Master Narrative," and "Cowboys and Indians" Images.

Below:  Cowboys and Indians who failed to transcend their ethnicity or political affiliations.


dmarks said...

"Cowboy demographics are almost irrelevant to my argument."

But later you yourself mention how important they are.

Anyway, the claim that most cowboys were nonwhite is indeed surprising. and I wonder if he can back it up with any evidence.

Rob said...

I believe most cowboys throughout our history were white. But even if most cowboys were nonwhite for a brief period, I don't think it would seriously affect my argument.

For one thing, Manifest Destiny was arguably our national credo 50, 100, even 200 years before the period in question. For another, I doubt many nonwhite cowboys made policy decisions about which land to use. Even if the cowboys were nonwhite--a dubious assertion--the ranchers who hired them were white.

As for the actual cowboy demographics, here's some evidence:


Census records suggest that about 15% of all cowboys were of African-American ancestry—ranging from about 25% on the trail drives out of Texas, to very few in the northwest. Similarly, cowboys of Mexican descent also averaged about 15% of the total, but were more common in Texas and the southwest.