When Indians Became Cowboys

Wait, weren’t Indans and Cowboys opposed to each other?

Well, yes and no!

Good Morning!

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.

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 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.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 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.

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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. Good Morning, Karen,

    Fascinating post! And thanks for referencing those two books. I’ll have to look into getting them, they’ll be helpful with my current WIP.

    The story of Jackson Sundown has always amazed me. I’m glad you included it here.

    I grew up, and return as often as possible, near the Wind River Reservation and many of the Shoshone people have beautiful ranches around that area. I have been to an Indian rodeo, and it was one of the best.


  2. What an interesting post, Karen. I never gave much thought to the idea of Indians becoming cowboys, but it certainly makes sense.
    I’m betting your post will start some brains whirring with new story possibilities. An Indian rancher…hmm…

  3. Very informative post, Kay. Yes, I knew there were Indian cowboys and rodeo stars because more have followed the path of Tom Three Persons. (That is one unique name!) On the prairies where I live, the houses on the reservations are spread out and many First Nations people raise horses. A couple of them have such a reputation for ‘bomb proofing’ their horses that they command the highest prices at the local auction.

    However, I didn’t know about the Dawes act or its repercussions. Thank you for posting this.

    Anita Mae.

  4. Love the post Kay. Yes, I have been to an Indian Rodeo. They are so much fun and I love them. I definitely have to get my hands on those books

    I love reading your post….Well thanks for sharing

    Walk in harmony,

  5. Very interesting as always. I did not realize that they turned so much to cattle ranching and rodeoes. I’m afraid I’m not keen on them myself, only because I’m a big animal advocate and I think there is some mistreatment there. I’ve always been for the underdog. And IMO there is nothing worse than when someone else tells someone or a group of someones that they have to do or think their way for their own good.

  6. What this reminded me of was Louis L’Amour saying the Indians were the best light cavalry the world has ever known. Their skills with horses and their fighting skills were unmatched.

  7. Very interesting post Karen! I haven’t really thought about the indians becomeing cowboys before but they really did. I have never been to an indian rodeo but I would say it would be very interesting because they were such masters with horses. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Karen thank you for today’s history lesson. I do so enjoy these topics, as I learn so much about something I love so much, and that is Cowboys and the old west.
    You talked about the lands that belong to the Indian tribes. The land the my brother’s cottage is on is Indian owned land. he owns the builing, but not the land. It is interesting for sure. I think the tribe is the Muskwash, which maybe a off shoot of the Muskoka Indians. For that is where is cottage is the Muskoka region of Ontario..

  9. Hi Kirsten!

    I’ve been to the Wind River Rez and it is, indeed, beautiful. I, too, love Indian rodeos — actually I’ve only been to Indian rodeos. : )

  10. Hi Anita! Yes, the Dawes Act — I think we should be spared the “good works” of gov’t sometimes. Whether inept or downright pretense to do good all the while having the intention of doing the exact opposite, one thing my research of history of American Indians has shown is that no one cares about you and your family as much as you do — how can someone who doesn’t know you possibly think for you when you probably work off of thousand of computations per minute? 🙂

  11. HI Kathleen!

    Wow, that’s really interesting. Don’t know much about Canada and their policies on The American Indian, but that’s very interesting. Sort of like we are today — without our knowledge, of course – it’s why the gov’t can tell you what to do on what we believe to be our own property and why we have to pay taxes. Interesting.

  12. Karen, You always give me something to think about and more reading to do. I love your posts.
    As usual, today’s is very interesting.

  13. I knew a little bit of this info, but I love to read what extras you always show me… always enjoy your posts!

  14. Hi Kay, Yay! for the Indian Cowboy. Many of my husband’s nephews are in Indian Rodeo. It is wild. They have no fear. (And they should). The Fallon All Indian Rodeo happens in the third week of July, every year. It is wild.
    My husband was for most of his life, an Indian Cowboy. Several small children of ranchers would ask him how he could be a Cowboy AND an Indian. He always had some smart answer.
    To see some of our Valley Indians, they starred in the movie, MAVERICK. They were a riot. Many were rodeo team ropers and some actually fell off their horses, with all the acoutraments they had to wear. I always watch the movie to see them.
    Great information as always.

  15. So many think only of whites when they think of cowboys. There were many blacks as well as the indians you mentioned. We have attended many pow wows and rodeos. Several years ago we attended the annual pow wow and rodeo on the Rose Bud Reservation. It was a wonderful experience. It was the largest and only all native american pow wow we have attended. They opened with a flag ceremony honoring veterans. Every pow wow we have ever attended has had a flag ceremony and/or a dance honoring veterans. A recognition of the importance of warriors in their culture, I am sure. They were short veterans for the flag raisings so asked for none tribal members who were veterans, and my husband was drafted to help. He has been invited before to participate in veteran dances, but not this time. Just as well, he really is a terrible dancer. It is much harder and takes more stamina than it looks.
    I will admit I spent more time at the dancing than I did at the rodeo. The variety of regalia was wonderful and I always enjoy the dancing, whether it is competition or audience participation. There have been Cherokee riders from N. C. that have participated in the rodeos we have attended here in TN.

    It would make sense that indians would eventually become ranchers. Starting as a cowboy was a way to start working up to a more successful position for many men of all backgrounds.

    Thanks for another interesting and informative post. It was nice remembering Rose Bud.

  16. You touched on many things in your post, Karen. I usually think of Indians for my books as horsemen since I deal primarily with Comanche. Even before the white man arrived and shoved Indians from their lands, Indians were superb horsemen, and many that I write or those I read about used horse-whisperer methods to train. Much easier on the horse, and a lot less likely the man will break something. 🙂 Thanks for your insightful, educational posts.

  17. Better late than never, Kay! I’m sorry I’m just now getting to comment–we’ve been gone today and I’m only now getting to settle in on the computer as I wanted to. I love this post. As always, very informative and interesting, with a point that I hadn’t really thought about. Thanks so much for this!
    Cheryl P.

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