Academic journal article Social Education

Legacy of the American West: Indian Cowboys, Black Cowboys, and Vaqueros

Academic journal article Social Education

Legacy of the American West: Indian Cowboys, Black Cowboys, and Vaqueros

Article excerpt

   Oh, I'm a lonely cowboy and I'm off the Texas trail,
   My trade is cinchin' saddles and pullin' bridle reins.
   For I can twist a lasso with the greatest skill and ease,
   Or rope and ride a bronco most anywhere I please.

--"Lone Star Trail," recorded by Ken Maynard, 1930.

The cowboy is viewed as an American icon: rider of the open range, rugged individual, and champion of good. Many young children pretend to be cowboys, riding stick ponies and shooting "bad guys." When I was growing up, Western shows peppered the television screen: Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel, Stagecoach West, Rifleman, High Chapparell, Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, and Johnny Ringo. Authors, such as Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey, have documented the life of a cowboy through more than 200 stories. Recordings by singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were a part of my early music collection.

But the cowboy life was not an easy life. Beans, bacon, and coffee were the leading sustenance, a bedroll under the stars served as home most days, and pay was about $30 per month. (1) The work was tough. Cowboys faced cattle rustlers, stampedes, Indian raids, and hostile white settlers. They had to make sure the herd had plenty to eat and drink, and often had to drive cattle hundreds of miles to the nearest railroad.

Cowboys are still very much a part of American culture today. High school and college students participate in rodeos sponsored by the National High School Rodeo Association and the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association sanctions around 700 rodeos annually.

Why is it important to study cowboys? The introduction of cattle and horses by the Spanish conquistadors transformed the local culture, influenced the economics of the times, and created a national identity with the cowboy. Yet our understanding of cowboys has, for the most part, been informed by movies and television shows. Dime store novels and Wild West shows helped construct the stereotypical images of the "white" cowboy and the red-skinned "savages." However, the cowboy culture and history are a product of men and women of many ethnicities; therefore, it is imperative that students be exposed to the many influences that shaped the American cowboy.

When Indians were Cowboys

As the West was often portrayed as a battlefield between cowboys and Indians, it may be difficult for students to understand that so-called Indians were often cowboys. The early Spanish missionaries trained Native Americans as cattle herders. Many Natives adopted ranching into their economies. (2) As Native Americans had historically worked with animals and lived in close relation to the natural world, ranching provided connections to that heritage. (3) Natives were recognized for their horseback riding skills, particularly Comanche warriors, noted for their ability to shoot arrows from under a horse's neck while galloping onwards. (4)

Since laws of the day made it necessary to register cattle brands, annual roundups were held. Branding cattle, riding horses, and roping skills were a natural part of the cowboy existence and often led to competitions for bragging rights as to who was the best. The rodeo was a natural extension of activities that were a fundamental part of the cowboy life. In a rodeo, the Native was not locked in the stereotype of primitive savage, but could be established as a skillful horseman or roper. Some noted Native cowboys include:

1. Jackson Sundown (Nez Perce), winner of the World Championship Rodeo in 1916;

2. Torn Three Persons (Blood), winner of the first World Bucking Horse Championship at the Calgary Stampede in 1912;

3. Will Rogers (Cherokee), noted writer and actor who grew up as a cowboy;

4. Teesquantee Woolman (Cherokee), three times National Finals Rodeo (NFR) Team Roping World Champion;

5. Tom Reeves (Sioux), team captain for U. …

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