The Black Cowboys

A 19th century photograph of a group of working cowboys

The History

According to Smithsonian researchers, during the heyday of the Wild West, about one out of four Cowboys were black. To understand the rise of the black cowboy, one has to take a look at Texas in the decade of the 1860s, when war broke out between the states and during that war, The Emancipation Proclamation was passed.

For Texas ranchers, who went to war, this was a particularly difficult time, for if they survived the war (and many did), they only returned home to find affairs in disarray. For while away, the slaves had often been left in charge of managing the cattle herds, a task with which they took on with varying degrees of success.

It only took the ranchers a short time to turn things around. By taking on the now free black men as cow hands, they straightened out life on the ranch. And then as lucrative markets for beef opened up in the industrial north, the ranchers now had an opportunity to prosper. There was one catch; they had to drive their herds north to places like Kansas, where the product could be quickly shipped to market.

Nat Love was a real 19th century cowboy, who in 1907 wrote his autobiography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Cowboy Autobiography

In 1907, Nat Love wrote his autobiography of his life as a cowboy. Born in 1854 as a slave in Tennessee, Nat eventually traveled West, where he found work on an Arizona ranch in the 1870s.  In Nat’s own words, his first-hand accounts differ only slightly from many of the stories that we see in the movies.

In his book, Nat talks about huge cattle drives from Arizona to Kansas, fights with Indians and visits to the Wild West cow towns like Dodge City, where saloons, gambling joints and ladies of the night flourished. During his travels, Nat met the likes of Billy the Kid, Pat Garret, Bat Masterson and even earned his own colorful nickname of Deadwood Dick after winning a cowboying contest in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Everybody Wants To Be the Cowboy

Back in 1996 the Fugees, released a song called The Cowboys. The tune appeared on an album called The Score, which in many ways embraced the gangster lifestyle. A year later, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, borrowed a line from the popular Fugees number and released this video, titled “Everybody Wants To Be the Cowboy”. Filmed on the shores of Jamaica, the following music video takes a slightly different tack on the rapster/gangsta attitude, which today seems quite popular and successful, even finding its way into our highest political institutions.

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Earth Day, Cowgirl Poetry, Richard Nixon and the EPA

Since 1970, Earth Day has always been observed on April 22.

A Brief History of Earth Day

Earth Day was the idea of Wisconsin Senator, Gaylord Nelson, who came up with the idea in 1969, as a way to promote environmental awareness on a planetary level. In April 1970, the first celebration of Earth Day occurred with the majority of activities, occurring on college campuses and in large urban areas in the U.S. A year later, not only did President Nixon give Earth Day official recognition, but he made April 22 part of Earth Week.

Earth Day is still celebrated today, as over the years, the global challenges have changed and environmental legislation is nowhere as universally popular as it was back in the 70s.

The President and “the King” in 1970

Richard Nixon: Our Greenest President?

Richard Nixon was not much of a cowboy, but as an environmentalist, he did pretty good, signing 14 pieces of Environmental legislation during his tenure.This little known fact about our 37th president may come as a surprise to many political observers of that era, especially since he showed little or no interest in environmental issues before becoming president.

Nixon began his environmental legacy in 1969 by signing into law The National Environmental Policy Act, which created environmental impact statements.

Then in 1970, Nixon proposed and pushed through Congress the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was quickly followed by the Clean Air Act and the creation of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration}.

By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, he had also passed the Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (actually signed by Ford in 1974).

Yes, folks that’s quite a legacy.

Cowboys and Environmentalists

Today, the rancher (and the Cowboy) have their backs against the wall financially, as they face increasing pressure from a changing world to their way of life.  Loss of grazing land is just one challenge, as other threats can come from growing populations in the New West and the a new kind of activism arising from radical environmentalists.

Nonetheless, the Cowboy poets are thriving, as larger audiences thirst for the old storytelling skills of bygone eras. Even though these modern-day bards may be out of sync with the urban reality of rap and slam poetry, they have caught the attention of many, who have never saddled a horse or roped a calf.

Sometimes Cowgirls Don’t Get the Blues

Today, cowboys and cowboy poets are generally pictured as having a close relationship and understanding of the land. However, in today’s complex world, they do not seem to be overly concerned about global warming or climate change.

Perhaps, this attitude is best summarized by Nevada poet and rancher, Carolyn Duferrena.

A Cowgirl Contemplates Climate Change

by Carolyn Duferrena

I have to say it’s kinda nice
Not to spend the winter
Chopping ice,
And to tell you the truth
When I wake up in the morning
The last thing on my mind
Is global warming.

 

Final Note

This blog has been also posted at my alternative site, Bluefoxcafe, which can also be found at WordPress.com. I am currently undertaking an experiment to determine which place gets more traffic.

Little Big Man Revisited

The Custer Fight, painting by Charles Marion Russell
The Custer Fight, painting by Charles Marion Russell

Watching Old Movies

A few weeks ago, the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe sponsored a free showing of the 1970 classic, Little Big Man. The film starred Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway and Richard Mulligan, as General Custer. The western spoof was a box office hit, but just as important was the reality that the film adaption, which came from a Thomas Berger novel of the same name, opened the door to Indian awareness in American cinema. 

Smoke Signals poster for the Miramax film by the same name
Smoke Signals poster for the Miramax film by the same name

Furthermore, the movie launched a new wave of Native American actors, actresses, writers and directors, some of whom are still active today. One of these persons, a film director from the Cheyenne-Arapaho nation by the name of Chris Eyres, introduced the film and attempted to explain what the film meant to him, even though he was too young to appreciate the film, when it was first released. Chris Eyres, who teaches filmmaking in Santa Fe, is best known as director of Smoke Signals, which is drawn from a Sherman Alexie’s story, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”.

Chief Dan George from Wikipedia
Chief Dan George from Wikipedia

The Big Names

The cast of Little Big Man really helped to make the movie, for it featured a couple of the big names at the time. These included Dustin Hoffman as Little Big Man and Faye Dunaway who did a great job in portraying an erotic preacher’s wife (Louise Pendrake) and an eccentric hooker with a mild Southern accent (Lulu Kane). The movie also got a big name director, Arthur Penn, and a seasoned musician, John Hammond to write the music score.

The Newcomers

Little Big Man helped launched the career of Chief Dan George, a Native American from Canada, who did not begin his acting career until he was 60 years old. Dan made Little Big Man, when he close to 70 and followed with several other film appearances, including a minor role in the Outlaw Josey Wales. Richard Mulligan portrayed General George Armstrong Custer as a military man with a severe psychosis. It was Mulligan’s biggest role of his career, even though his portrayal of Custer as a man on the edge of insanity is probably not historically accurate. Custer may have made some bad military decisions and severely underestimated the number of Indian warriors in the area, but there is little evidence that he was off his rocker. Still, the idea of Custer, as unstable, still has considerable appeal today.

The Shootout by Red and Grooms portrays the Cowboy and Indian fight in humorous terms.
The Shootout by Red and Grooms portrays the Cowboy and Indian fight in humorous terms.

Indian Humor

Most importantly, Little Big Man, introduced  history of the “Old West” from a Native American perspective, along with Indian Humor. This second link goes directly to a passage from Vine Deloria’s classic book, “Custer Died For Your Sins”, a witty and humorous title that superbly underscores the concept of “Indian Humor”.

A Cowboy Author from the Old West

book cover on Will James
cover featuring a Will James painting from a book about the cowboy artist

Twentieth Century Cowboys

Contrary to popular belief, the “Old West” did not die with the beginning of the 20th century. If you ever saw the opening scene from the movie, “Seabiscuit”, there is a wonderful part, where a mounted rider chases down a wild horse. The brief spurt of action is set against a stunning backdrop of mountains. After reading Will James intriguing memoir, “The Drifting Cowboy”, I now know that there is more truth to this picture than I first realized.

6am339 by Will James
painting entitled 6 a.m. by Will James

Who was Will James Anyway?

Will James is the alias of Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, who was born in 1892 in Saint-Nazaire-d’Acton, Quebec, Canada. As a young man Joseph traveled west to Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned to be a cowboy, but Joseph had to leave Canada and change his name ( to Will James) because he was wanted for cattle rustling. In the U.S. Will James traveled round the west working as a cowhand at various places, especially Montana. He even drifted south and worked in Hollywood as a stunt reader. This fascinating experience is well detailed in The Drifting Cowboy.

Learning to Draw

Will James learned to draw and paint at the early age of four when he was still known as Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault. Joseph grew up in a French speaking household, where such activities were encouraged at a very young age. Today, James artwork is scattered across the West with a large proportion held by the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, MT. This high plains Montana enclave is where Will James retired to after he finished his cowboy years. Part of his drawing and painting collection is on permanent display at the Montana museum.

portrait of will-james_117143925_std

Perhaps His Most Challenging Accomplishment

Not only was Will James an accomplished artist, but he could tell a good story as well. This is quite an accomplishment, for someone who learned English as a second language. In fact, Will James writing success brings to mind another famous Francophone, who also excelled when writing in English. That person is none other than Jack Kerouac, who was raised in a French-speaking household in Lowell, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, Will James shared some of Kerouac’s  undesirable traits such as alcoholism, a transient lifestyle and death at an early age. Even though Will James published a score of books, had one successful Hollywood movie (Smoky the Cowhorse) and sold many drawings and paintings, he stilled died at age 50 from alcohol abuse. Today, his books are still available through the Tumbleweed Series put out by the Mountain Press Publishing Co. of Billings, MT. Check one out; you will enjoy the read.

Maynard Dixon painting
Navajo Land by Maynard Dixon

Artists of the Old West

Around 1920, James studied art at the California School of Art and Design. It is here that he met another painter, Maynard Dixon, who would go on to achieve much success with his painting. Despite Dixon’s dramatic artistic style, his personal experience with the “Cowboy Life” cannot match that of Will James. All in all, Will James was a very talented interpreter, who revealed many wonderful things about the life of the American cowboy in the not-so “Old West”.

Reading Instead of Writing

Good Day for Reading
What I Did This Summer

No, I did commit any murders along with a bunch of my friends. In fact, I did not do anything illegal except maybe for a small amount of public intoxication….But I wasn’t apprehended so that is that. What I did do is work at various labor jobs through a temp service and read a bunch of books. Most readers could probably care less what kind of work I did, so instead I am posting my reading list along with a few comments about each book.

The List

1 & 2. Rum Punch and Cuba Libre

Since my first two books of the summer were novels by a novelist, who just passed away last week, I thought I would cover them both with the same passage. If you haven’t guessed the nwriter yet — shame on you — for it’s Elmore Leornard who just passed away last week. And the two books are Cuba Libre and Rum Punch.

And yes I did read these two fine novels back in May and June before Elmore passed away. Cuba Libre was fascinating romp by a couple of off-the-wall Americans mercanaries in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. It’s one of the books that put Mr. Leornard on the literary map, but I have to admit I enjoyed Rum Punch even more. The spicy Miami characters in this first-rate crime novel come to life convincingly in this classic Elmore Leornard novel. Perhaps one of his best.

3. Shakedown by Gerald Petievich

A suprisingly good read by an ex-law-enforcement officer. This book has a great opening and after the initial scene, the author never lets the reader down. Set in L.A. and Las Vegas, the Shakedown is some very good crime fiction writing.

4. How To Murder a Millionaire by Nancy Martin

The Blackbird sisters are Nancy Martin’s newest literary creations. There are three of them with Nora being the main focus of this mystery/comedy set in fashionable Philadelphia. There’s a lot to love here as author Martin leads the the reader through the cozy upper-class world of Philadelphia’s Main Line, looking for the person, who murdered the wealthy art collector and family friend. If the other Blackbird Sisters stories are as good as this one, they are definitely worth a read.

5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Somehow I made it through high school and college withoutn being required to read this classic from “The Jazz Age.” This short novel (only 200 pages) has by now become an American classic. Centered around a destuctive love triangle, which includes a Mr. Jay Gatsby, this tragedy still stands tall among American literature. I read this novel as a prelude to the movie release, but never made it to the silver screen to catch the lavish tale from the “Roaring Twenties.” Guess I’ll have to watch the DVD instead.

6. The Drifting Cowboy by Will James

Though born as Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault in Quebec, Canada, Will James came to the West in the early part of the twentieth century and lived a fascinating life as a cowboy, Hollywood stuntman, livestock rustler, author and visual artist. I found this book in the library of the Sioux Falls mission and enjoyed the short read immensely. For lovers of the “Old West”, there are a least a dozen titles put out by this unique writer and published by the Tumbleweed Press in Montana.

7. A Hole In Texas by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk published A Hole In Texas in 2004 at the ripe old age of 88. It is a fictional story surrounding the partial building of the Supercollider in Texas during the 90s. Ultimately, the project was abandoned, hence the title. The story surrounds one nuclear physicist, his wife and an old female colleague from China, who shows up in the USA to testify in front of Congress. Even a short visit from the world renown scientist is enough to create some serious marital discord the American physicist.

8. The House On Mango Street by Susan Cisneros

This super short book about the author’s childhood neighborhood in Chicago has become an international classic….and rightly so, for it is written in a beautiful experimental prose style that will enthrall the reader’s heart. Ciscerno’s short vignettes on growing up in a Hispanic neighborhood are priceless.

9. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

This is the my first book by the Japanese master and it definitely won’t be the last. Usually, I don’t take well to translated fiction, but Murakami’s writing reads like it was written by a native speaker. Actually, I have learned recently that this is not far from the truth, for Haruki Murakami sometimes works as an English to Japanese translator. He just doesn’t do it for his own writing. Through this collection of short stories, the writer takes the reader to some incredible places, even though they may at first appear very mundane.

10. From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman

This is my one non-fiction entry for this post. Even though the book was published 15 years ago, Friedman’s firsthand experiences in Lebanon and Israel still serve as excellent background material for understanding today’s conflicts in the region. I read this first person account of life in the two cities back in late July, but since then events in Syria and Egypt have made the information even more pertinent.

Reading Instead of Writing

Since abandoning most of my writing activities for the past several months, I have felt more relaxed and at ease with the world around me. Never mind that my online e-book sales have dropped right off the charts, and I have failed to sell any articles or short stories since April, for I still feel for refreshed and energized when I now look at a blank sheet of paper with pen in hand. Plus, I have enjoyed my extended reading period. I hope that when I again avail myself to the craft of writing, I will feel thoroughly refreshed by the summer hiatus.