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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Cowboys, Indians, and the West: Frozen in Time?



When I shared this photo of a stallion stolen from the San Antonio, Texas area on my FB page, people seemed amazed that there were still horse thieves in the world. Yes, there are—and not just between the pages of Louis L’Amour novels, either.  According to the International Livestock Identification Association, hundreds are stolen each year.

In South Dakota back in the 70s, when my partner John Gritts was Director of Financial Aid at Black Hills State University, there was still a city ordinance against three or more Indians walking abreast of one another down the sidewalk.  That meant that John, enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, couldn’t walk side by side with his sons. Of course, he did anyway, and eventually the outrageous and archaic ordinance was stricken from the city’s law books -  but not until about 10 years ago.

Will Wilson, self portrait
Do we all walk with one foot in the past?  Where exactly does the past meet the present?  This is not a new question for novelists, especially writers of historical fiction set in the West.  Where exactly is the West, and how do we create a dialogue between the West's past and present with an eye toward the future

Photographer Will Wilson (DinĂ© Nation) explores this question by reaching backward in time to the dialogue begun by historic photographer Edward S. Curtis.  Wilson challenges the romantic stereotypes found in Curtis's iconic photographs of Native Americans and seeks “to do something different."  Wilson uses the same technique that Curtis used (tin type photography, a wet plate process), but his subjects are contemporary.   Last week, the Denver Art Museum exhibited Wilson's photographs as part of this “Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange.”

Museum special project coordinator Rose Eason writes, “Will has set out to capture portraits from today’s American Indian communities to counter the representations of Native American cultures frozen in time.” Read more.  

When John Gritts was asked to take part in Wilson’s project, he was also asked to bring “an item of significance” to help illustrate the dialogue between the old Curtis vision of Native Americans frozen in time, and the contemporary reality.  John took a few different items with him, including a traditional Cherokee hunting jacket and a portrait of his great great grandmother who walked the Trail of Tears when she was a child.  Here's a photo of John, taking a photo of the portrait Wilson took of him, holding Grandma Dockie's portrait.  I love the picture above because it conveys the overlapping movement of time.

 A few months ago, I went to the Denver premier of the documentary Losing the West.  “With sweeping shots of the Colorado Rockies, the film explores whether cherished Western traditions and this fiercely independent lifestyle can survive as they collide with inevitable population growth in the West and its dwindling natural resources."


The main storyline follows the life of cowboy Howard Linscott, the original Marlboro Man, drawing a parallel between his waning life and the demise of the small ranches, farms and families of the West.  Directed and produced by Alex Warren, the film makes a powerful statement, raises critical questions, and links up viewers, both rural and urban, with ways to take action.

Will Wilson and John Gritts
Is the West vanishing?  Has it vanished already?  Are cowboys, Indians, farmers, and ranchers frozen in time?  Has the dialogue between the past and the present been silenced?  Can writers help to keep the rivers of time flowing by making sure that our characters are real enough to step out of the past and converse with the present?  And what the heck does that mean, anyway?  I guess I'm asking if we can resist being lazy.  Can we believe enough in the story we're telling to step away from all we think we know about a person, or a people, or a culture, and bravely admit we don't know?  And then do what we need to do to find out? I hope so. The future depends on it.

END NOTES: Read The Atlantic's April 8, 2013 article "Native Americans: Portraits from a Century Ago."  More on stolen horses at NetPosse.