John Wayne is Not the Only Cowboy

When I was growing up, cowboys were long ago and far away. They were in the old Wild West, and in Texas, and maybe Wyoming or Utah, but in Michigan we didn't see cowboys anywhere but TV, and even there, we didn't see many - at least, not at my house. We didn't watch Westerns much, and I don't really remember playing Cowboys and Indians - we always played superheroes, because flying was more interesting than riding a horse, and I always got to play Batgirl. Still, we knew about cowboys, and they were mildly fascinating and very foreign.

Oddly, while being from the Midwest did little for me in terms of imagining cowboys, going to Germany did a lot more. There's been a German fascination with the Wild West at least since Karl May published Winnetou in 1893, a book about a German "greenhorn" who is more skilled than experienced frontiersmen, more moral than the ministers, more humane than anyone, and who becomes blood brothers with Winnetou, son of the Apache chief. The book - which is fascinating, but not exactly what I'd call well-written - establishes a mystical connection between Germans and Indians, and its message, if you read between the lines, is that the world would've been much better off if the Germans had colonized everyone. Um, yeah, whatever.

Perhaps the weirdest part of the book's history is that it is without a doubt the most popular book in the German language. Ever. And that includes today. It sells about a million copies a year, and was recently translated into Latin, for use in German schools. I have yet to meet a German person who doesn't know Winnetou. And the fact of the matter is that this book, with its Wild West and Wild Indians and Wild Frontiersmen, shapes a lot of German perceptions of America. (The Economist ran an article to that effect a few years ago, called "Cowboys und Indianer.")

When we'd go to Germany, we were the Cousins From America, and America, to a lot of folks, was the Wild West. We saw more cowboys and Indians there than we did in the States, and although neither I nor my brother ever read Winnetou (well, I read it recently because I'm presenting a paper on it, but that's different…), we were fairly well aware of the cowboy and Indian mystique it created.

The Indian mystique was challenged in school and in college. I had some fabulous teachers in grade school, including one who threw her book down full force on the floor because it contained the line "Jacques Cartier explored the uninhabited wilderness of northern Michigan." ("What's wrong with this sentence?" she asked us. We all looked, couldn't identify any misplaced punctuation or misspellings. I timidly raised my hand and said, "Um, there were Indians there?" The teacher - not a small woman - jumped up and slammed her book down on the floor, which sent all her papers scattering. I was a shy kid, and at that moment I knew she was going to kill me. She pointed at me (oh no…) and then she shouted, "YES! YES! That's exactly what's wrong with it!" What followed was a lesson on the existence and experience of Indians, and the biases of textbooks. This was fifth grade.) Focusing on postcolonial literature in college continued the process, and now, doing Native American studies, I work to help my own students get over their mystified and stereotyped views of Indians.

A picture of Mrs. Oliver, my 5th grade teacher. Link. Wow! Check it out! It's Mrs. O (or Helen Oliver, if you want her real name), my fabulous fifth-grade teacher!!Here's a link to the page where I found it, which is about her work with the African American Academy program. I can't believe I actually found a picture of her!

But whatever happened to the other part of that equation, the cowboy? He rarely came up, but when he did, it wasn't good. Occasionally, we'd hear that Ronald Reagan's problem was that he thought life was like a cowboy movie. When Daddy Bush started campaigning, he affected a cowboy look to hide his upper-class silver-spoon upbringing. Cowboys no longer represented any kind of frontier. They represented rich white conservatives trying to pass themselves off as Everyman, they represented Reagan's simplistic but malevolent politics, and they represented the worst of the NRA's excesses. As a result, I learned to distrust anyone who'd walk around in public in cowboy boots or a cowboy hat.

Then I moved to the West - first New Mexico, and then Texas - and you just can't keep that up. A lot of people have cowboy boots and hats, and I saw more of them at the Pueblo Feast Days than anywhere else. I was friends with people who wore cowboy boots and still stood to the left of Democrat. And I read Luci Tapahonso's fabulous poem "Raisin Eyes,"

Those Navajo cowboys with raisin eyes
And pointed boots are just bad news.
But it's so hard to remember that all the time.

But none of these thoughts really came together until this past week. First, the Cowboys of Color Rodeo came through town. The Cowboys of Color Rodeo promotes awareness of "the historical contributions of African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans to the development of the western United States." Yep, that's right - a large proportion of the cowboys out on the range have always been people of color. That John Wayne image we're, uh, saddled with when it comes to cowboys is, at best, only a small part of the story.

And then my friend Carmel and I went to dance lessons at the local gay country bar. I've never set foot in a straight country-dance bar, and quite probably never will, but I've been to a few queer ones, and they're fun. Years ago I would've smacked you for suggesting I might one day line dance and like it. And years ago, the notion of two cowboys dancing together would've never entered my mind. (Though I have to tell you, it's about the cutest thing to see.) Even though most of what I'd read about the frontier was at minimum homoerotic, queer cowboys just didn't occur to me as a possibility.

And it also never occurred to me I'd be living in Texas, which used to seem as scary to me as cowboys did. Now that I'm here, it's become clear that Texas isn't really any scarier than anywhere else. Which doesn't mean there aren't some scary parts of it, but it also means there are a lot of other parts as well. Some of these parts I don't like, but some of them I do. Yeah, it has its right-wing and intolerant side, but I've never lived anywhere that didn't, and it also has the people organizing for immigrant rights or protesting against the death penalty every week. They're Texas too. Texas is more than big guys in boots and hats - and besides: the big guys in boots and hats? They two-step with each other, and they're Navajo cowboys with raisin eyes, and they're African Americans who can rope a calf quicker than I can write about them. The West is much more than Karl May ever imagined, and cowboys are far more than John Wayne could ever be.

Ju ly 18, 2002


Doin' the Boot Scoot Boogie

This week, I learned a line dance. The "Boot Scoot Boogie," to be precise. And what's more, I wore cowboy boots out in public for the first time ever. Wild and crazy.

I never saw line dancing before moving West - well, except on Country Music Television, when I was flipping past it on my way to MTV. The folks on CMT were weird. They wore big ol' boots and big-checked blouses, and they did these funny dances that looked like the square dances we'd been forced to learn one mortifying week in fourth grade gym class. Occasionally I'd pause for a minute, because the show had the fascination of a minor car accident, but the fascination never even sufficed to finish watching even one song.

And there I was, with about 30 other people, standing in rows on the dance floor trying to follow along as a fellow in a cowboy hat and boots called out, "OK, stomp, stomp, kick kick, ball-change, stomp, kick kick…" (Line dances, go figure, are a dance done in lines. Like the electric slide, which folks did at anything-but-country parties in college.) So there I was, trying to do the Boot Scoot Boogie.

"And turn, right two three, together, left two three, front, front, front, and twist…" It's really hard to follow the steps when the person directly in front of you keeps doing it wrong. Still, I was gradually getting it, even as we sped up to the tempo of the song.

Since I do Karate, what I kept thinking was, "This is just like learning Kata!" (Kata are stylized fight forms that teach central elements of Karate.) OK, so it isn't just like learning Kata - at least as far as I could tell, there's not really much philosophy and mental work that goes into line dance, but you know, I could just be seeing it wrong... But the physical aspects are fairly similar, and since I was learning a new Kata the next day it seemed like good practice.

"And stomp, stomp, kick, kick, ball-change..." Argh - I could do it facing front and facing left, but once we got turned all the way around, I kept flubbing up, even though it was the exact same routine in all directions. I was tempted to throw in the towel, but Carmel talked me out of that moment of frustration. I also reminded myself that I don't learn physical skills as quickly as some, but that I do eventually learn them, so I just kept doing it. And eventually, I did learn it. Woo hoo!

I also discovered why the heck you wear cowboy boots when you go line dancing or two-steppin'. I'd gone before, but never in boots. But boots are ideal. Country dancing involves a whole lotta scootin' and slidin', and cowboy boots have leather soles and next to no traction. They were so smooth, in fact, that I almost slipped when I stepped out on the dance floor. That doesn't seem particularly practical for walking, say, but for country dancing, it works.

Especially if what you're trying to do is the Boot Scoot Boogie.

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last updated 18. July 2002