I grew up in the land of cowboys and Indians.
This is not hyperbole. The cowboy part of the equation included several western wear shops in town, at least one annual rodeo, and I knew many people who wore cowboy boots unironically and rode horses. There was even a western movie hero named after my hometown–The Durango Kid–who was featured in 65 movies from Columbia Pictures. And with both the Southern Ute and Navajo reservations very close by, I knew several Native Americans growing up. With the usual myopia of childhood, I figured my childhood was more or less universal.
See, even growing up in a western town, I figured I had an idea of what the “Old West” was like, though this vision was largely informed by movies and television and the cultural makeup of small-town Colorado in the 70’s-80’s. And that vision was, by and large, white. Growing up in Durango, our minorities were Hispanic or Native American. Black people in Durango? They were mythical and lived only in cities or television. In the “West”–in the land where regional TV networks would have “Put up your Dukes Week” where they showed John Wayne movies every afternoon for a week–black people didn’t exist.
Of course, Hollywood lied.
The truth of the matter is quite different. For starters, the Cowboy evolved from the Mexican/Spanish vaqueros, a tradition which dates back to the 16th century.
Cattle ranching, particularly cattle drives, was damn hard work. And most of the time that work fell to black cowhands who, during “peak cowboy” numbered as many as 1-in-4 (some say as high as high as 1-in-3 in some areas). There is even some speculation that the word itself was used to distinguish black cowhands from their white counterparts, though I have been unable to find a reliable confirmation of that. The number of Mexican cowhands was even higher which shouldn’t come as a surprise as much of the Southwest had been part of Mexico as recently as the 1840’s. That means less than half of the buckaroos on a cattle drive were typically white.
And then you have Bass Reeves, the legendary U.S. Marshal who, over the course of his career arrested over 3,000 felons and killed 14 outlaws in self defense. There is some speculation that he was one of the inspirations for the Lone Ranger.
Not that you’d learn how diverse the real west was from watching Rio Bravo. (And for what it’s worth, Rio Bravo is a damn perfect Western, but it’s as historically representative as Lord of the Rings.)
Thankfully, historians are starting to address the imbalance and recover the real Old West that Hollywood fictionalized. CNN did a lovely piece on it not too long ago. The Black American West Museum in Denver, Colorado is also a great resource. The Real Cowboy Association hosts the annual National Black Rodeo, which only makes sense as bulldogging steers (jumping from a horse to grab a steer by the horns and wrestle it to the ground) was invented by black cowboy Bill Picket. And there is the Federation of Black Cowboys based out Queens, New York (of all places) keeping the tradition alive.
And if you want to correct the balance by watching some pre-Django westerns with a more diverse main cast, here’s a great list to start with.
But the important thing is to understand that history isn’t a science: it’s a narrative. We need to examine it from time to time, consider where that history comes from and who is telling it. Because it is full of biases, some intentional, some purely accidental. And the deeper you dig, the more fascinating, rich, and complicated that history is revealed to be. It’s a rewarding experience.