How the West Was Spun
As an exhibition exploring the heroic myths of the American frontier opens in the UK Annie Proulx, who lives in Wyoming, reflects on the grim reality behind the enduring fantasy of the lone ranch hand
Saturday June 25, 2005
The heroic myth of the American west is much more powerful than its historical past. To this day, the great false beliefs about cowboys prevail: that they were - and are - brave, generous, unselfish men; that the west was "won" by noble white American pioneers and staunch American soldiers fighting the red Indian foe; that frontier justice was rough but fair; and that everything in the natural world from the west bank of the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean was there to be used by human beings to further their wealth. These absurd but solidly rooted fantasies cannot be pulled up. People believe in and identify themselves with these myths and will scratch and kick to maintain their western self-image. The rest of the country and the world believes in the heroic myth because the tourism bureaux will never let anyone forget it.
Today, at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, an exhibition opens called The American West, which aims to explore the heroic myth from the days of the trappers to today's political and corporate cowboy culture. Curator Richard William Hill, of Cree-Canadian descent, describes his skittering, kitsch-gathering trip through the American west in search of cowboy and Indian culture for this exhibition as "Gonzo curating". It's good this exhibition is happening in Warwickshire: if it were somewhere in the real American west, not many local people would be interested.
In the real west people see only those qualities that fit the limited concept of individual freedom, independence, toughness and pioneer "spirit". The easiest way to do this is by donning the ritual garments that symbolise all these presumed virtues: ten-gallon hat, boots and spurs, pearl-buttoned yoked shirt, blue jeans. Western Day celebrations, stock exhibitions and rodeos often declare obligatory western attire for local inhabitants so tourists are treated to hundreds of faux cowboys limping around in high-heeled boots. (A few years ago at the cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, Nevada, I noticed a heavy man wearing a pair of beautiful boots, his trousers stuffed down inside them the better to show off the appliquéd design of cards, dice and six-shooters. A day later I saw him again, shuffling across the street in a pair of commodious bedroom slippers.)
Architecture helps: log mansions in the Bitterroots; the faux adobe structures of Santa Fe (municipally regulated construction of stucco over chicken wire and plywood); the still-popular false-front stores of many small western towns all carry the message that the west of the 21st century is still the west of 1885. Teepees stand as come-ons in front of shops selling "Indian" crafts made in China. The Native American painter David Bradley is a master at deflating various parts of the myth with his sharp observations of the real Santa Fe: cigar-smoking invader Texans, neon, gay Indians (Tonto and the Lone Ranger smiling from the balcony of their cute pink house), massage parlours, the hustle and grab of the art game, the fallen cowboy under the sofa.
No one in today's west wants to know that most trappers were rough, illiterate men, who used their liaisons with tribal women to discover the best trapping areas and trading opportunities. Their goal was financial success and to retire wealthy and respected back in old Missou'. The highly detailed illustrations of artist John Clymer, used on the covers of many western histories, show these big-chinned, clean, buckskin-clad trappers on handsome horses in stunning landscapes. Sometimes there is an Indian in the painting, but usually in the background or in subordinate position, and often with a receding chin - subtle reinforcements of the myth of Caucasian superiority. The trappers, like their successors, the cowboys, were a force in the west only for about 20 years before the beaver market crashed. The fur trade was the earliest act in the boom and bust economics drama that characterises the region.
The cowboys, many of them ill-paid and armed Texas teenagers, were not revered in their brief years after the civil war driving cows up the trail to northern pastures. They did not call themselves cowboys but cowhands, punchers, buckaroos, wranglers and waddies. They were hired hands, under the control of older foremen, themselves employed by investor cowmen. The myth, of course, contains no whiff of homosexual behaviour on the part of these cowboys who often shared bedrolls as well as work and danger. But little notes here and there, bits of verse, indicate they were not the pure heterosexual tough guys we might think. Social historians John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman remarked in their book Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, on a poem one cowboy had written when his partner died ". . . declaring that the two had loved 'in the way men do . . .'" The authors also quote a limerick: "Young cowboys had a great fear / That old studs once filled with beer / Completely addle' / They'd throw on a saddle, And ride them on the rear."
The cowboy became heroic under the pens and brushes of the painters of the so-called Old West. Still recognised as the champion artists are George Catlin, Frederick Remington, Charles Russell and Will James. In their hundreds of pictures and sculptures depicting brave white men in terrifying combat, usually against Native Americans, it could be said that Remington and Russell created the cowboy hero. Remington, who had been raised in a well-to-do New York family, fell hard for the west. He started as an illustrator and worked to become known as a painter, until he became enshrined as the most masterly of the narrative western painters. In It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own, Richard White quotes Remington as writing: "Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns - the rubbish of the Earth I hate - I've got some Winchesters and when the massacring [sic] begins, I can get my share of 'em, and what's more, I will." White adds: "The bloodthirsty racism of Remington was an extreme, but hardly unusual, example of the use to which an invented West could be put." Today's white supremacists in the west preserve Remington's sentiments.
Charles M Russell (1864-1926) is known almost as well for his semi-literate illustrated letters as for his paintings and sculpture. He was born into a prosperous family in St Louis, but was psychologically bound to his frontier ancestors, the Bent clan, who operated the famous fur-trading post, Bent's Fort, on the Arkansas River. His family let him spend a summer on a ranch in Montana when he was 16. For the next 11 years he worked cattle round-ups and night-herded horses, drawing what he saw. He became very popular among the cowboys and not a few western families today treasure a Charlie Russell illustrated letter handed down from a grandfather. Russell's last painting, unfinished when he died, Father De Smet's First Meeting with the Flathead Indians, is included in this exhibition.
Born Ernest Dufault in Quebec, Will James headed out for the Canadian west in 1906. He drifted down to Montana a few years later, learned idiomatic cowboy English, did time in Nevada State Prison for cattle rustling, and worked as a stuntman in the early Hollywood westerns. He explained away his accent with the story that he was the orphaned son of a French trapper. His illustrated books, Smoky the Cowhorse, and the outrageous invention, Lone Cowboy: My Life Story were a huge hit in the 1930s. But the subterfuge eventually ruined his health. He was one of many who not only swallowed the myth entire, but added his own distinctive gloss to the portrait of the solitary, decent cowboy whose best pal is his horse.
Arthur F Tait (1819-1905) was a popular painter of the west who never set foot on the plains he depicted. He did visit Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1896, but that was it. He worked hard at research and used every crumb of information about the west that came his way. His pictures were entirely derivative, unsullied by any personal observations or experiences. He owned (or borrowed) a suit of buckskins and a pair of moccasins and was photographed wearing this western garb while pointing a rifle up and away. He then used the photograph of himself to paint his first western picture, On the Warpath (1851). The next year he painted American Frontier Life (Trapper Retreating Over River). The landscape of this painting reflects an eastern environment, but not the plains, mountains nor river banks of the west. The subject trapper is charging his flintlock pan with powder while his horse climbs a steep bank - quite a difficult task. These three artists shaped the idea of the American west as we know it.
There are still men who work cows and who wear the traditional regalia (especially on Saturday nights when they hit the bars looking for girls who don't mind sexually transmitted diseases as long as they come with a ten-gallon hat and boots). Film-maker Vanalyne Green, visiting Wyoming a decade ago, made a documentary, Saddle Sores, detailing her amatory and medical adventures following an encounter with a local cowboy. A few years later Kim Shelton made a gritty documentary called The Highly Exalted, about present-day Nevada cowboys. Last year, when I bumped into someone who knew the cowboys in the film and asked what had become of them, he remarked casually that they were probably all in jail - ranch work is a dependable fall-back job for ex-convicts.
Women in the west boiled down to emigrant wives and female children on their way to Oregon and California over the dusty trails; frontier school teachers; the wives that ranchers, cowboys, store-keepers and army officers went back east to marry and bring west; and, at the bottom of the ladder, prostitutes and squaws.
One of the west's favourite sub-myths is the prostitute with the heart of gold who has been forced into the trade by tragedy and poverty, who treats her customers fairly, becomes the intimate confidante of powerful men, owns half the town, gives (anonymously) to the church and eventually marries a rancher. Anne M Butler blew this myth apart in her book Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery (1985). (The myth reassembled itself almost instantly.) Frontier prostitutes were poor, wretched, with no chance to escape the life once they were in it. They were vulnerable to alcohol and drug addiction, extortion, disease, unwanted pregnancies, brutality, arrest and jail. If they married at all it was usually briefly to low, transient men with as many problems as the women. Western newspapers used prostitutes as the butts of arch humour, and did not hesitate to name names. Small wonder that so many of these women killed themselves.
Many land features in the west are locally called "squaws' tits", though states and mapmakers have renamed most. The Grand Tetons, or Big Tits, on the Wyoming-Idaho border cannot be changed. They decorate too many calendars. In the west, Native American women were either squaws or princesses.
And what of the whites and Indians? Myth sifts the complex multi-mix of tribes and nationalities to absurd simplicity, pitting conquering white settlers and US army against generic but "fiendish, cruel and bloodthirsty" Indians. One reason the Battle of Greasy Grass (Custer's Last Stand) so catches the American imagination is because it could be easily grasped and because it illustrated basic prejudices: a few white American soldiers on one side, a large mass of red Indians on the other. This battle has achieved a kind of macabre popularity thanks to the Anheuser-Busch brewery of St Louis which in 1896 printed lithographs of Cassily Adams's painting, Custer's Last Stand, showing the beleaguered general in the centre of the swarming battle brandishing his sword and holding his empty pistol by the barrel to use as a club. The painting was crammed with historical errors but it fuelled the myth. The brewer sold more than a million of the prints, which decorated bars and homes from coast to coast.
Although white westerners today like to believe there were only a few groups of backward Native Americans in the golden west when Europeans arrived in the New World, there were, in fact, between 850,000 and one million Native Americans in America, people who had successfully practised stone-age cultures for at least 12,000 years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, tribes were on the move, eager for the horses of the southwest, pushed out of their old territories in the east by other tribes and encroaching civilisation. By the 1880s, the tribes, pushed off their lands, riddled with smallpox, tuberculosis and venereal diseases, were starving and tattered.
Not all the invaders of the west were blinded by greed and their own ambitions. Photographer Laton Huffman (1854-1931) was at Fort Keough in Montana in the 1880s and saw first-hand what was then the New West. He objected to the extermination of the buffalo; to the barbed-wire fences that subdivided the land; to the cowboys; and to the railroads, which he called "the fatal coming".
There arose in the eastern part of the United States a widespread belief that the Native Americans, like the bison, were vanishing, and now not only painters but photographers rushed west, first with their cumbersome wet plates, and then after 1884 with handier dry plates. From the 1860s onward, cabinet card photographs of Native Americans were hugely popular. The Native American quickly became a commercial commodity, eventually used to sell everything from sports teams to canned peaches. Not a few of the photographers used props and costumes to enhance their images; real Native Americans were, by the 1880s, demoralised and clad in dirty rags. The sense that they would soon be gone goaded museums and collectors to start gathering up artifacts - baskets, beadwork, pottery, arrows, cradleboards. This habit became ingrained in westerners who always seek and pick up arrowheads. (Not knowing what to do with them, most put them in glass jars and save them for some obscure future.)
By the early 20th century, the Native Americans, safely confined to reservations and subject to the tender mercies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, underwent a magic transformation. A kind of romantic, impressionistic pictorialism began to show them as a handsome, noble and tragic (though still generic) people. This sympathy for the conquered persists - although now it is mixed in with a quest for spiritual help, environmental idealism, and ancient herbal medicines that promise to show today's harried white population the way to serenity and health. One look at conditions on most reservations will show that serenity and health are not hallmarks of today's Native American existence. The other side of the Noble Indian experience is Gallup, New Mexico, on Saturday night in the grip of the deadly bottle. Still, many tribes have pulled themselves away from inept and corrupt government by establishing popular gambling casinos and using the profits to fight diabetes and alcoholism, two diseases that ruin many Native American lives.
The Compton Verney exhibition includes some Native American art rarely seen in America outside museum archives. Several of the drawings are by Zotum, a Kiowa whose Indian name meant "Hole-Biter". Zotum was one of a number of young braves captured and sent in irons to Fort Marion prison in St Augustine, Florida, under the charge of Lieutenant Richard Pratt. A gelatin silver print in the Trout Gallery of Dickenson College by an unknown photographer shows 16 young men in buckskin leggings, their hair in braids, their muscular bodies naked to the waist, standing in front of the grim stone prison on arrival. Another of the group commemorated the photo session in his drawing. Pratt ordered their hair cut and replaced their Indian clothes with proper American trousers and shirts. They were made to choose new American names.
Pratt, who opened the era of the Native American reformer, was interested in Native Americans, not as individual humans, but as subjects for rehabilitation as industrious, possession-minded Christian Americans. He persuaded Washington to give him a free hand with this project. The young men at Fort Marion, loosed from shackles, showed a keen interest in drawing. In three years 26 of them made nearly 850 drawings. Pratt disapproved of the subject matter, which showed military-Indian encounters, attacks, coups or fighting, and encouraged work featuring trains, bridges, American buildings. Later he brought in white artists to wean the men from what he considered the flat and inferior Indian style, forcing them to practise perspective and shading.
In Wyoming where I live, not more than an hour's drive from ancient petroglyphs and charcoal horses under sheltered ledges, I am constantly reminded that Native American art on rock, hide and bark was made for very different reasons than Euro-American art. Art was an integral part of Native American life, not a rarefied aesthetic _expression practised by a few. The switch from natural materials to white-man paper and ledger books was not only a huge change in materials, but in the Native American perception of the purpose of art.
Two influential people in early 20th-century Native American art were Angel de Cora and Dorothy Dunn. Hinook-Mahiwi-Kilinaka (Fleecy Cloud Floating in Place, translated as "Angel" in English) de Cora was born to a prominent Winnebago family on what is today the Ho-Chunk Reservation in Nebraska. A boarding-school success story, she graduated from Smith College and went on to study art in Philadelphia and Boston. She should have been recognised in her time as an important American painter, but was not. She took on a thankless job in 1906 as a teacher at the Carlisle Indian School founded by Pratt and dedicated to erasing the Indian cultural past. De Cora tried again and again to build appreciation for Indian art and its acceptance as American art. She wanted to bring Indian design to household objects, and to some extent her ideas did influence the Arts and Crafts movement. But when she left Carlyle after nine years, her innovative programme collapsed. She died at 48 in the great influenza outbreak of 1919. Illustrator Howard Pyle (popularly known for his Treasure Island paintings), with whom De Cora had studied, was asked once if he considered any of his past students to have been a genius. He replied, "Yes, once, but unfortunately she was a woman, and still more unfortunately, an American Indian."
De Cora was far ahead of her time, a Native American and a woman. She is still lamentably obscure. Her opinions were disregarded but in 1928 the Meriam Report, named for its editor, Lewis Meriam, convinced the federal government that there could be economic value in Indian arts. The Santa Fe Indian School was designated the arts and crafts centre for the entire Indian boarding-school system. In 1932, a white graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dorothy Dunn, arrived at the Santa Fe Indian School. She expanded the arts and crafts curriculum to include design and painting courses which eventually became famous as "The Studio". Oscar Howe is perhaps the best-known Studio alumnus. Dunn organised exhibitions in the United States and abroad that attracted the attention of wealthy collectors and patrons.
In the 1960s and 70s, influenced by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, social ferment, the explosion of Pop Art and the nascent American Indian Movement (AIM), the art of Native Americans began to change. Anger erupted in work loaded with bitter social content. Fritz Scholder, who died last February, was born in 1937 in Minnesota. His father was half Luiseño (a California Mission tribe). The family moved to South Dakota in 1950 and Scholder studied with Howe. In 1964 he was hired to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, the 1962 revamp of Dunn's old Studio. At this time he was painting abstract southwestern landscapes and said ". . . he would never paint Indians because the subject was too clichéd".
At the school he encountered students from scores of different tribes. Among them were TC Cannon and Bill Soza. In 1967, Scholder began painting Native Americans: a big meaty man with one eye, another sitting at a bar with grinning skull showing beneath the flesh, a traditional dancer with a pink ice-cream cone, fleshy feathers, dark and dangerous shadows, pin-heads, rains of blood, alien thoughts and massive painted jaws. He was a brilliant colourist, but perhaps not more so than Kiowa Stephen Mopope, who painted in the 1920s. Scholder brought Native American art to international attention and museums clamoured for his work, but he had many detractors: people who objected to the strength that made the paintings meaningful; people who thought he was showing Indians in a bad light. Almost as if to counteract Scholder's intense art, the Cowboy Artists of America formed, preferring romantic, campfire Indians to violent yellow dancers wielding knives and leaping on purple ground.
Today's descendant westerner who feels he or she is the living embodiment of some clear-eyed American pioneer happily overlooks the terrific and complicated ethnic mix of whites fighting for land, hunting rights, cow pasture, water. A large number of Irishmen served in the armies of the west where the arid climate, ceaseless wind and brilliant sunlight were so different from the soft rain of home, and many of them settled in the west and became ranchers. When the Union Pacific Railroad pushed through the west it brought in foreign miners to dig the coal that kept the trains going. At one time, Rock Springs, Wyoming, counted 56 nationalities in its population. In 1885, white miners killed or drove out more than 50 Chinese miners in an ethnic cleansing riot, not an isolated event in the west.
Much of the heroic myth is now concentrated in rodeo, the west's own contribution to sport. (There is Indian rodeo, too, a separate world from the white cowboy shows, as is women's rodeo and gay rodeo.) Rodeo, once an exhibition of a buckaroo's riding and ranch-work skills, has devolved into show business and has itself become a stand-alone myth.
Once rodeo featured serious contests in roping, saddle bronc riding, calf-tieing, cattle-penning and the like, contests won by the most able men who were often notoriously rough-mouthed, heavy-drinking, pea-brained, ungodly louts happy with a belt buckle and a few dollars' prize money. Today the louts have vanished, replaced by religious-minded, college-educated, young, Christian, mostly white men who make whacking amounts of money. Jesus, of course, was the first rodeo cowboy when he rode that unbroken colt into Jerusalem. Almost nothing in rodeo now has anything to do with ranch work, especially barrel-racing, the only women's event, where horses ride as fast as they can around a slalom of barrels.
Richard William Hill writes in his exhibition catalogue essay that ". . . by the time we got to Wyoming I knew that LA was really the hub of all this nonsense. It was Hollywood that taught cowboys how to be cowboys, that took an unglamorous working-class job and turned it into an iconic identity". It seems more likely to me that the technology of film simply took over where Remington and the other white western painters left off.
As always, showman Buffalo Bill was ready in the wings. The first western film was an 1894 short strip for the Edison Kinetoscope (a peepshow contrivance) and featured Buffalo Bill. The early film cowboys were often the real thing, dressed in real clothes. The movies provided employment for these men, whose ranch jobs were seasonal and spotty. But it wasn't long until show-off Tom Mix, a Pennsylvania fellow with a little Oklahoma experience, introduced the white hat and other fancy costume items to the superficial, shoot-'em-up plots.
Much of the west's past is literally acted out each year by enthusiasts called "re-enactors", who don appropriate costumes and take on pageant-like roles in such events of yesteryear as a Trapper's Rendezvous, a Texas Trail Drive, Custer's Last Stand, or a Mormon Handcart Journey. For a few days it is real enough. Like Will James, everybody can be a cowboy for a while.
In recent years "cowboy" has come to stand for shoddy, don't-give-a-damn construction work and rude, boisterous behaviour. And, as this exhibition shows, it has also taken on a political colour, not of the decent, stalwart protector, but of an aggressive, foolhardy bully who forces weaker entities to submit to his will. The west has come to symbolise the policies and character of a country increasingly hated in the larger world, cutting fences and forcing its cows through. Thus has the heroic myth circled back to bite its creator on the ass.
· The American West is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire from June 25-August 29. Details: 01926 645540, or at www.comptonverney.org.uk.