Cowboys & Indians

Remington’s got the story right. See below.

Mortal enemies, right? The basis for zillions of all-American children’s games. And, more or less, utter nonsense. It’s amazing how thoroughly we buy into the distortions that media provides each and every day.

Nobody knows how many Native Americans lived in North America before the enemy showed up and killed most of them. In what become the United States, there were probably between 5 and 10 million native people. The vast majority of these natives were killed by European settlers, not “out West” (by which we mean, mostly, the Great Plains), for those deaths came in the 1800s, toward the end of the story. Far more were killed first by the European diseases carried by explorers and traders, and then, by a century of U.S. military actions. By 1871, the U.S. government no longer bothered with Indian treaties–they had already won the war and decimated the native population. Our images of cowboys on the open plains are circa 1880, and by that time, the “Indian problem” was mostly resolved by Manifest Destiny. (Prior to the final third of the 19th century, there wasn’t much of a cattle industry, so there weren’t many cowboys).

Remington had the story right: his painting, above, A Dash for the Timber, U.S. militia–not cowboys–shoot at the Apaches (see in the rear).

Sure, cowboys battled Indians (or, if you prefer, Injuns), but much of the action occurred courtesy of wildly imaginative Wild West Shows operated by the likes of Wild Bill Cody Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. As pure show business, these spectacles were extremely popular, and provided a nascent motion picture industry with the necessary creative impetus to produce “Westerns,” most often featuring some version of cowboys and Indians (not so much, “smallpox and Indians,” or “U.S. Army troops and Indians”–cowboys made more sense as entertainment). And with all of that, we’ve bought into this elaborate mythology: our native people were primitive, violent (when provoked with loss of land, family, and health, but that part is forgotten), a class of warriors who deserved no better than their present fate.

It’s a bit of a reach, but not too much of a reach, to wonder about a retelling of the Civil Rights movement through the magic of CGI, or a reconstructed version of Weapons of Mass Destruction emerging from a Jeb Bush White House in 2016 or so. The alternative truth is easily constructed, sold on the big screen and through immersive videogames, and if the stage management is effective, and the bits are in the right places, most people can be made to believe what they know not to be true.

We’re better than this. I sure wish we are smarter today than we were as kids playing cowboys n’ injuns. It’s not about getting the historical facts right–not a bad start, but not the point, either–it’s about teaching our children (and our adults) what really happened, why it happened, and why we might rethink the subject matter that becomes the basis for our entertainment or our children’s games.

Just in case you missed it, here’s a tale about The Battle of Little Big Puck, for thirty years an annual hockey game between Cree Indians and the local cowboy population. The referee is a local Mountie. Here’s the backstory:

“The roots go back to a hot summer day in July where a couple of cowboys and a couple of members of the Nekaneet band met in the old Commercial Hotel over a cold beer,” he said. “And as good friends do, they got to bickering good naturedly as to who could ride the rankest horses, and rope the quickest, and pretty soon it came down to, ‘We can darn sure beat you guys at hockey.’”

BTW: If you can figure out how to write the last sentence of this blog, please post your closing sentence as a comment below. I’m completely at a loss for the best way to close this one out.


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