Well, yes and no!
Perhaps it was inescapable that Indians would become cowboys. The way of life, out on the Plains and in the open air. It was too much like the old way of life. There’s a book entitled the same as my title here — When Indians Became Cowboys by Peter Iverson. In this book Iverson documents what became a very natural transition from warrior to cattleman and horseman. There’s also another book source: Legends of our Times — Native Cowboy Life by Morgan Baillargeon and Leslie Tepper.
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.
Put 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 one’s personal ethics can be scrapped?). Sigh… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 about this. 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.