Cowboys and Indians

Indian Country Today

For 41 days in January, white men wearing denim and cowboy hats occupied the semi-arid world of eastern Oregon.

I followed the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from my home in the wet-gray world of the lower Columbia River. The media was filled with images of men riding horseback carrying the American flag like rodeo queens at grand entry. In one photograph, a man leads a horse with an American flag posted on the saddle, the horse’s black tail flowing in the snowy landscape. The flag echoes the heroic achievement at Iwo Jima; it’s every baseball game, every Super Bowl, every national anthem moment. Those hours and hours of coverage of men wearing cowboy hats and guns on the range was eye candy. It was impossible to see them–cowboys with more American flags than a Fourth of July parade–as villains. They were Quixotic warriors, cow pokes standing up to the federal government. Horses in the snow, the bright colors of the flag against a far horizon were a romantic vision that neither the Burns Paiute elders nor a group of middle-aged white birders in rain gear could match.

In US District Court in Portland, Oregon, Ammon Bundy’s lawyer, Morgan Philpot, argued that Bundy and his brother Ryan, leaders of the occupation, should be allowed to wear cowboy boots, belts, and hats during their trial for conspiring to impede federal workers from doing their jobs.

“These men are cowboys, and given that the jury will be assessing their authenticity and credibility, they should be able to present themselves to the jury in that manner,” Philpot said. The Oregonian reported that although they were born on their father’s ranch, Ammon Bundy owns a vehicle fleet service business in Phoenix, Arizona, and his brother Ryan has a contractor’s license. Judge Anna J. Brown denied the request.

There are both horses and Indians, in addition to hundreds, and even thousands, of people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation, but constant media coverage remains notably absent.

As much as Americans love old-time Indians, the young men riding bareback are not glowing with cinematic potential, not picturesque enough to capture media coverage. In a photo from The Atlantic, Anishinabek Nation men from Saginaw Chippewa Reservation bring their drums to the Standing Rock camp and sing. One wears a beaded vest, another a baseball cap. They look like real people living their lives, just like a group of Osages who bring food and wood and stand with relatives wearing Pendleton blankets to offer it.

Real working cowboys carry forward that man-on-the-range mystique, but unless Indians put on full TV-western wear, no one, meaning the media, is going to see us. Tribal flags and banners lining the road into camp are more photogenic than a group of Native people of varied ages, weights and complexion standing together. I remember the white woman in my master’s class, who wrote about a Native man, skimming his culture and beliefs and then deriding his food as “unhealthy, fatty, diabetes causing.”

This July, I went with the Osage Nation Historic Preservation Department to visit Cahokia, a civilization our people helped build. That’s how I came to be in a chartered bus driving around North St. Louis looking for a boulder that marked the spot where a 250-foot Cahokia-era mound formerly stood. Many Americans don’t know that an agrarian civilization was centered in Illinois between 600 to 1300 CE. It supported 40,000 people–more than everyone living in London at the time. Compulsory labor built a pyramid as large at the base as the Great Pyramid of Giza. Cahokia became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1982, and now school kids make yearly field trips.

St. Louis is nicknamed Mound City for the big mound it demolished for railroad fill in 1869. We wanted to find the boulder that marked the site, because a new bridge opened in 2014 had destroyed additional Cahokian materials. The city had offered a park to commemorate what was lost. We located the boulder in the center of a circular park with concrete pavers in an otherwise empty lot. Osage Nation staff member Sarah O’Donnell explained that planners agreed to use an image of Cahokia’s Birdman that dates from 1300. The Birdman has a beak in profile, ear spools and wings instead of arms. The bronzed medallion on the boulder before us contained not the Birdman, but a stereotypical Native wearing a war bonnet.

This is the preferred mythology, a distillation of cinematic tropes. Neither Black Lives Matter marchers nor Native protestors will get the kid glove treatment from the FBI that the white land activists got at Malheur. We know the end of this story. We played it out in the 1800s, at Sand Creek, Washita, Wounded Knee the first and second. While liberals decry violence, military campaigns carry on.
I think white Americans are like the Isolated Earth people the Osage encountered in one creation story. The Sky people and Earth people were traveling together, when they encountered a group living in filth and chaos. The bones of animals and humans lay on the ground in their camp, intermingled and unburied. The Isolated Earth people didn’t know how to live; they were disorganized and lustful. Only one of the Osage groups would talk with them, but they invited them to come live the right way. The Isolated Earth people made the journey to a new country and agreed to change their ways. They’re part of the Osage people today.
The only way for the dominant culture to find a new way to live is to honestly take stock, to examine dearly loved mythology. I’m not hopeful. Acknowledging indigenous nations’ treaty rights would require significant change in the way this country uses energy and water, for example. Native people will keep fighting. Maybe the settlers, like the Isolated Earth People, will move to a new country.

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