Monday, September 20, 2010

Cows and "boys"......

“…..Popa promised me that I could go
He’d even let me see a cowboy show
I saw the cowboys and Indians for the first time then
I told my Pop I’ve gotta go again……”

Lyrics from “Louisiana Man” by Doug Kershaw

Back years ago, that song was one that I enjoyed very much. The meaning of that passage is quite significant since one of the defining myths of the United States is that of the cowboy.  But not so much the actual cowboy, rather the Hollywood version of cowboy

Very few males of my generation grew up without playing, at some point or another, some version of “cowboys and Indians”.  Playing pretend games is a feature associated with the young of most (if not all) mammals.  Kittens pretend a string is something to attack, young rabbits enjoy playing chase, etc. Pretend is fun, pretend is many things but pretend can be confusing and risky when we do not realize it is pretend.  Standing in the back yard and flapping your arms and pretending to fly is one thing, jumping off of a 10 story building and flapping your arms is not likely to be an experience you want to repeat (if you survive). Pretending that monsters are heroes can lead to the admiration of despicable characters.

The myth of the cowboy fixed in the minds of most Americans is a product of the capitol of pretend, Hollywood.  Inspired by various fiction writers (Owen Wister (a Harvard educated Lawyer), Zane Grey (a dentist), Louis L’Amour (a boxer and laborer), etc) the mythical cowboy is as closely related to actuality as is the notion that pretend flying is the same as real flying.

The German people were exposed to this myth via the works of Karl May who was and still is an immensely popular writer there. Mr. May, who led a troubled life which included some jail stays for theft and fraud only visited the United States one time and apparently never left New York state during that visit.  Nevertheless his version of the American west and of cowboys is very popular in Europe. The cowboy, like the knight is a potent fantasy receptacle for the longings and dreams of children (and adults).
Cowboy realities: The total number of men who worked a range as cowboys was about 35,000 people. The cowboys had their heyday roughly between the end of the Civil War and the mid 1880s, a period of about twenty years is all. Of those 35,000 men who from time to time worked in the occupation of "cowboy," about 25% were black. About another 12% were Mexican.
So, a period of twenty years a cast of about 35,000 people (of whom only about 60% were white). This does not resemble the “cowboy show” we were all exposed to.

Hollywood cowboys were portrayed as individualistic, strong, courteous and patriotic.   
Cowboy realities: One of the last great cattle drives occurred in 1884. But it almost did not take place. Just a matter of days before the cattle were to hit the Chisholm Trail, when they'd been rounded up by the thousands in pens in Southwest Texas, the cattlemen faced a strike on the parts of those cowboys who were members of the Knights of Labor. They walked off the job, they climbed out of the saddles, they marched around pens with picket signs demanding higher wages, better working conditions, claiming that they would not perform their occupation unless they got their demands satisfied.
Cowboys, who were not like what Hollywood pretended, were portrayed by actors like John Wayne, who was not like the public persona he presented.  For instance Wayne campaigned very hard to avoid the draft during WWII and in fact never served a day in the military but successfully developed the persona of the quintessential fearless, brave and patriotic American.

Hollywood has never shown cowboys organizing into labor unions, as far as I know.  Maybe it would be a nifty thing if they did so, then when children played “cowboys and Indians” somebody could play the part of labor organizer.  By the way, most historical information about this period indicates there was very little conflict between the cowboys and the Indians….most battles that occurred involving Indians were fought against United States military groups.

So we are looking at a period of about 20 years, during this time about 5 million cows were herded from one area to another….so they could be killed for a higher price.  The herding was done by people that the website describes as: “short, stumpy human beings. They lacked teeth, they had skin the quality of tanned leather…….”

So, folks that were rather ragged looking helped kill about 5 million animal people.  This is the reality of the cowboy and what the cowboy did (and continues to do).

One other fact of note, it was during this same 20 year time period, 1865 to 1885 (more or less), when the number of buffalo went from an estimated 15 to 20 million down to only 1 to 3 thousand.  So while the cowboys were herding cows to their death, other Americans were slaughtering bison by the millions, almost to the point of extinction. Partially so there would be more grass for the cows destined for death.

Next time you think about cowboys, think of the 20 year period and realize that 15 million buffalo and 5 million cows were killed for money.  And the cowboy helped out in the slaughter.  The cowboy wielded a red hot branding iron and burned a tied up and helpless baby cow.  Steer means a castrated male cow…..cowboys castrated the male cows….without anesthesia. The cowboy is someone who burned and cut innocent animals, with no anesthesia, so that some human animal could claim them as property and make money off of their death. Hero?

For some context, Americans kill about 100,000 cows a day now, what took the cowboys 20 years to accomplish is now done in 50 days….less than 2 months.

One other interesting thing, the behavioral characteristics mythically associated with the cowboy…..self-reliant, silent, courteous, honest, hard-working, etc are apparently lifted almost directly from the mythology of the knights of Europe.  That was all a bunch of BS too, knights were mercenary soldiers hired by various “noblemen” (rich folks) and did pretty much what their bosses told them to do. Cowboys, along with Knights are archetypes, not reality.  Lies created to represent what is wished to be, not what is.

Genuine heroes are much more difficult to find than Hollywood would have you believe.  Hollywood has no problem finding heroes, all they have to do is lie, and have young children (and grown people) believe their lies.

Cowboys were and are folks that hurt animal people, exploit animal people for profit and cause the death of millions of animal people. These are the behaviors of a monster, not a hero.


Andrea said...

Glenn, I can attest to the Karl May attraction... I basically grew up with his books, and so did the generation before me. Germans simply love the notion of the Wild West, cowboys, and Indians, often without ever finding out the truth behind the myths. When I was in OK, I went to see the Chisholm Trail Museum in Duncan which was an experience of mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was awesome to be so close to history, but on the other hand you knew what happened at the end of the cattle trail. It is equally upsetting that, as you wrote, the white man hunted the buffalo to extinction, for the grasslands, but mostly to cut off the Indian tribes' food supply, making them almost completely dependent on government annuities in the reservation system. I consider myself blessed to have seen both animals, the buffalo and the longhorns, roaming free and happy at the Wichita Mountains (my favorite place in OK apart from Heartland ... ;-)).
Great post!

Krissa said...

When I was a kid, one of my favorite shows was "Bonanza". My grandfather had all the Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour books and I read a couple, but I don't remember them. A large part of my childhood was spent in the midwest and luckily the only rodeo event I ever saw was barrel racing. The rodeos are another horrible thing that is part of that cowboy 'culture'. Girls, well tomboys :) played cowboys and Indians too. I was always an Indian.

Murph's mom said...

Oh oh, now Veganelder you've gone meddling. John Wayne is NOT a hero?! Gasp! And now the new image of the real cowboy is not the tall, ruggedly handsome, brave - and even noble individual? In actuality the American cowboy was short, toothless (probably from being kicked in the teeth from outraged momma cows), smelled bad(a bath happened at the end of the cattle drive)and they likely didn't even know how to spell noble? ...sigh... If we let our imaginations play this reality out - viewing from the backside of the cattle drive - the cattle trail had been stripped of any green thing for hundreds of miles and was replaced with tons and tons and tons of cow pooh and poor male cow testicles. Let me see if I've got this right - from start to finish this whole cattle drive thing stinks - a whole lot like the feedlots in downtown OKC do today.

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Andrea. I agree that the area around the Wichita Mountains is exquisite...several of the plains tribes consider the land there to be sacred....

veganelder said...

Thanks for commenting Krissa. You are correct....rodeos, cruelty and bullying masquerading as entertainment. Sort of fits with the theme of lies and deception, doesn't it?

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Murph's mom. What a word picture you paint...desolation, poop and testicles! Stinks is too polite a word.

So I'm Thinking Of Going Vegan said...

Love it -- veganelder the myth buster! ;)

veganelder said...

Thanks, So I'm Thinking of Going Vegan, for commenting. I was just trying to add some substance to that song titled: "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys"... :-)

Bea Elliott said...

What eye opening information! While I wasn't totally unaware of how Hollywood glamorizes and exaggerates facts - I never knew it was to this extent! It's interesting too that when the cowboy phase wore thin as America became more urbanized the range and war "heros" sought further fame in the circuses and what has now become the rodeo "tradition". All that "glory" in the name of shameless torture to the innocent. How sad. :(

veganelder said...

Thanks for commenting Bea. Sad indeed.