When Indians Became Cowboys

horseheader1.jpeGood Morning!

The word cowboy is an inescapable part of Native America — at least on the Northern Plains.  There’s a book entitled the same as my title here — When Indians Became Cowboys by Peter Iverson.  In this book he documents what became a very natural transition from warrior to cattleman and horseman.  And just so you know some of the other information in this blog comes from the book, Legends of our Times — Native Cowboy Life by Morgan Baillargeon and Leslie Tepper.

thumbnail[7]It really started in the 1600’s when first horses, then sheep and cattle found their way onto the plains.  But we won’t go that far back.

Now let me say here that cattle ranching is usually a story told in one color — white (this is from the book, When Indians Became Cowboys  but it’s pretty true, isn’t it?).  I guess to really go back to what started the whole thing, we’d have to go back to 1887 and the allotment act (also known as the very horrific Dawes Act).  The Allotment Act pretended to be the “friend” of the Indian, when in actual fact, it ushered in the beginning of the end of centuries old Native American Culture, the culture that met the first white man on this, Turtle Island (America).  It is responsible all on its own of dividing families and  causing the loss of one’s own culture and also of  the massive stealing of Indian land — all in the name of “doing good,” or “doing what’s best for you.”  Gosh, that sounds awfully familiar.  Scary.

thumbnailCAY6CQ1UPut as simply as I can, the Dawes Act gave every Indian family a 160 acre piece of land.  But it gave it to individuals and families.  Sounds good doesn’t it?  What could go wrong?

  Well, checkerboarded inbetween Indian land was the same or similar parcel of land that was to be sold to white ranchers.  Thus, native society, which had always thrived around the tribe and friends being close, was  cut up by the intervention of land that was to be sold to whites  (of course the land was supposed to be the Indians’ by treaty, but hey, when it means profit, I guess ethics can be darned?).  Excuse my sardonic tone, if you please.  Anyway, families (extended families) were lost because of mere distance.  It was thought that the Indians would “learn” from the whites surrounding them.  Of course the wordage of the act put it differently — that the Indians were learn from their “betters.”  In truth, there were people who truly believed this was for the best, and they for the most were good people.   Now, it’s true that the Indians did learn, but it wasn’t always pretty, for much of what they learned was as an observer of actions on the part of others that were unconscionable to say the least.

Okay, I could go on and on siting example after example, and telling you about how the land that was affected by the Dawes Act was the land that was the Indian’s best.  But we won’t go there.  Not now.  Instead, let’s have a look at how and when Indians became cowboys.images[4]

In the late 1880’s reservation life had little to offer.  How was one to prove one was a man if he couldn’t go on raids, capture horses or hunt as he had always done?  Ah, you’re right.  Cattle ranching fit the bill.  Not only did it allow an outdoor lifestyle, which was essential — it was free and gave the young man a similar sort of environment to that which he had always loved.  Some men raised horses.  Some raised cattle.  Not only did this lifestyle fit the young man’s temperament, it allowed him to carry on his traditions much the same as he had always done — being able to give things away to relatives and friends, and to make a name for himself within the community.  It also allowed the family to draw close together again.

images[2]There were several Indian cowboys and ranchers toward the end of the 19th century.   There was Tom Three Persons, from Alberta Canada.  Not only was he a legendary and world rodeo champion, he was also a very prosperous rancher.  He was said to own at one time 500 head of cattle and just as many horses.  He was also a very handsome man. 

images[1]Jackson Sundown was Nez Perce and was probably the first Indian cowboy to become the world bucking champion.  The year was 1916.  An interesting part of his life was that he was born in and around 1860 and was with the Nez Perce in their wars in 1877 — he was a teenager.  Her was part of the tribe that was a victim in the massacre at the Battle of Big Hole.  He survived the massacre by hiding under buffalo robes in his tepee until the tepee was set afire.  He then escaped by clinging to the side of his horse — out of sight of the soldiers.  He sought refuge in Sitting Bull’s camp in Canada.  Interestingly Jackson was in his 40’s when he began competing in rodeo.  He was so good that other men refused to ride against him.

images[5]Who else would be better suited for this kind of lifestyle?  There were many stars of the rodeo, not to mention their success as ranchers.  There was Barney Old Coyote Sr. — a very handsome man.  There was Todd Buffalo and many, many more.  As a matter of fact, my introduction into Lakota life included the rodeo and one of its bright stars.  And today, most Northern and Southern Plains Indians carry on the tradition of ranching and rodeoing.  Just go to the reservation for a pow-wow.  The rodeo is as much of an attraction as the pow-wow itself.

images[1]51OBNqdgaSL._SL500_AA240_[1]I hope I’ve raised your interest here in Indian cowboys.  It was a life that they were well suited to — a life that gave the young man standing in his community, a free life-style and the opportunity to do as his ancestors had always done.

Ah, they were…they are handsome men.  Come on in and tell me what you think of this post.  Did you know this about Indians and about ranching and rodeoing?  Have you ever been to an Indian rodeo?  On the Navajo reservation I once had to sing (without knowing they were going to ask me) the National Anthem.  I loved every minute of that rodeo.  So come on in and let’s chat — oh, and if you don’t yet have a copy of Black Eagle, pick up a copy today.

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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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22 thoughts on “When Indians Became Cowboys”

  1. Hi Kay, as always, another terrific post showcasing both the bravery, history, and plight of the first Americans. Thank you!

    I have not yet been to an Indian rodeo, but researching one of my blogs, I learned that another native American, a Hawaiian named Ikua Purdy, set the rodeo world on fire with his roping and riding skills at at the 1908 Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming. I can see how open spaces and outdoor activities lend themselves to Indians becoming cowboys.

    Thanks, Kay. oxoxoxoxxo

  2. A very informative post. My grandmother was Cherokee Indian so I always enjoy learing more about Indian culture. I’ve never been to a rodeo of any kind. I have accompanied a group of Girl Scouts from all across the country to a dinner of Indian food and a pow-wow. It was wonderful.

  3. I enjoyed reading the post, it was very informative. I have never been to an Indian rodeo, but I have been to some of their pow-wows though. I knew of of the history of Indians and about ranching and rodeoing, only because I didn’t some research on the different tribes. My great grandfather was half Cherokee Indian, so I have been learning about the Indian culture.

  4. Good morning, Tanya!

    Thanks for all your information, also, on rodeoing and riding. It’s interesting that this part of life on the plains isn’t much documented. Cowboys, yes. But not necessarily the Native American cowboy.

  5. I must admit that Rodeos are new to me — well, fairly new — also. There were of course rodeos where I grew up, but I seldom went to them. What’s interesting to me is that when there is a pow-wow, there’s almost sure to be a rodeo, also. : )

  6. Hi Becky!

    Welcome! I think this may be the first time we’ve posted together. So nice to meet you. That’s great about the reserach you’ve been doing. Don’t you love it? The research, that is.

    And I love that you know about and care about your heritage. Have a super day!

  7. Hi Kay, finally I make it to my email on the day you have a posting. I’m usually a day late and a dollar short.

    The posting was wonderful and I enjoyed it very much. Having seen some Native American cowboys in OK and AZ, it was a good read.

    Keep it up.

    Carol Ann

  8. Good post Kay. We live 20 mins from a reserve which is better known for it’s world renowned native dancers than it’s cowboys but most every acreage there has a horse or two. One year we drove way back on the reserve to buy a truckload of hay from a native rancher who owned some of most beautiful Indian ponies (paints) I’ve ever seen.

  9. Hi Carol Ann,

    So nice to see you here. Am glad you made it on the day I’m blogging. Yes,I thought that probably my post was not news to you. Hope all is well with you!

  10. Hi Anita Mae!

    The reserves up there in Canada really do have some beautiful land and some beautiful ponies. On the Blackfeet rez, one also sees buffalo, which is a wonderful sight.

  11. Hi Tracy!

    Thanks so much for stopping by. Yes, the connection is quite something to consider, actually. There is so much info out there on ranching and the Native American lifestyle. It’s wonderful to do the research.

  12. Interesting post, Karen. Knew some of the information. I was not aware of the Dawes Act specifically. Am not surprised, that seems to have been the standard operating procedure for the government. Any way to get out of treaties and breakup the family and cultural systems of the native tribes. We did attend the annual rodeo and pow wow on the Rose Bud Reservation on 2006. We were focused more on the pow wow, but the rodeo was a big part of the event. You are correct about the cowboy role being a good fit for indian men. Ranching, rodeo and the military we natural careers for those with a warrior heritage.

  13. Hi Karen, interesting post! The transition from plains warrior to cowboy seems like a natural one to me. I’ve only been to one rodeo in my life, in Saskatchewan, and one of the barrel-racing champions was a Native American girl. Thanks for the fresh take on history!

  14. Hi Estella!

    Yeah, the Dawes Act was very instrumental in forcing the Native American Culture into a decline. It was meant of course “for their own good.” Don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to dislike that phrase. : )

  15. Hi Patricia!

    Did you go to the pow-wow on the Rosebud then? I’ve been to that pow-wow — not the rodeo, but the pow-wow and I must say that I loved it. And yes, it really did suit their lifestyles. : )

  16. Hi Jennie!

    At one rodeo they had a tepee setting up contest. Complete with the tepee in a wagon and they had to drive the wagons into the arena and set them up and then take them down. Fantastic. : )

  17. Kay,

    Thanks for sharing this. It is amazing to me how this call came to be.

    Native American people are very wise and have a wealth of info to share

    Thanks Kay

  18. Hello Kay!
    Thank you for an interesting column. I truly enjoyed it. I love reading about the Native American people. When I was a child we would always play Cowboys and Indians. Everyone else wanted to be a Cowboy, I wanted to be an Indian.

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