In the West
My first image of the American West in terms of a morality play
came from the cowboy movies and TV shows of the 1950s. The
cowboys were always the good guysâ€”quiet and polite, hard
working and hard riding. The Indians, on the other hand, were
brutal and blood-thirsty, threatening the lives and property of
More recently, my view has almost reversed. The Indians now
appear to be the good guys, threatened and exploited by the
cruel and greedy white people.
Now, I assume that the situation is a bit more nuanced than Iâ
€™ve laid it out here, but generally speaking, the Indians seem to
have gotten it right, or at least been superior in such areas as the
environment, technology and human relations.
When white people first moved into the West, there were
240,000 Indians on the Great Plains, in the Rockies and in the
Intermountain region east of the Pacific ranges. â€œMost were
not indigenous to the West but belonged to the Five Civilized
Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole)
who had been forcibly removed from their lands east of the
Mississippi between 1825 and 1840,â€� according to M. A.
Jones in The West: An Illustrated History.
Culturally, they varied widely, from the â€œDiggersâ€� of the
barren depression between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada
to the nomadic tepee dwellers of the Plains, to the sedentary and
peaceful Pueblo Indians, who built large, elaborate communal
cities of stone and adobe.
But within a generation, whites spanned the nation with rails of
steel, slaughtered vast bison herds the Indians depended on for
their survival, and forced them onto one reservation after another.
As Europeans, in particular, moved into new (for them) lands,
they claimed those lands as their own, without regard to who
might already be living there. Their sense of ownership, that the
land could be bought and sold, was anathema to Native
Americans, who felt that the land belonged to the one who
The settlers' sense of entitlement taught them that they were
somehow of greater value than the earlier inhabitants and thus
deserving of this, to them, empty land. And their doctrine of
Manifest Destiny involved the conviction that Americaâ€™s
mission was to spread its distinctive brand of freedom across
the Continent, while ironically depriving the Native inhabitants
of theirs. As Jones put it, â€œFor most of the nineteenth
century [the West] was generally seen in tangible, material
terms, as a virgin land which awaited settlement and exploitation
in fulfillment of Manifest Destiny."
The concept of ownership caused many settlers to misuse the
land, breaking it up, fencing it off, and cultivating it in
irresponsible ways. They felt free to slaughter animals such as
the vast herds of bison that provided food, clothing and shelter
for the Native Americans, who only killed what they needed to
survive. Trappers killed animals that provided materials for
commerce, like beavers, fox, marten, mink and otter. The only
thing that stopped them was a change in fashion or the
annihilation of so many animals that the catch was no longer
worth the effort.
White people have tended to equate change with improvement.
Faster, more efficient modes of transportation and
communication, more deadly weapons, easier methods of
farming and water managementâ€”all were considered â
€œbetter,â€� without regard to their long-term effects.
My son Robert inherited a plaque that my father made with
various types of barbed wire attached to a piece of wood that
he had cut out in the shape of the map of Texas and stained and
finished. It shows improvements in barbed wire over the years,
as it became increasingly more brutal and dangerous to any
animal that became tangled in it.
The view that the new is somehow superior to the old has led to
our current overload of choices, dissatisfaction with anything
but the latest, and surfeit of stuff.
White people tended to assume their own superiority over other
races, which resulted in the enslavement or even slaughter of
other human beings. Honesty was sacrificed to greed, as
contract after contract and treaty after treaty were broken.
Certain races were dehumanized and vilified, particularly when
they competed for jobs.
An example is the treatment of the Nez Perce leader Chief
Joseph. Joseph resisted efforts to force his band from their
homes in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon onto a small
reservation in Idaho, and in 1873, a federal order to remove
white settlers and let his people remain seemed to indicate that
he'd been successful. However, the government reneged and
threatened a cavalry attack. Joseph led his people toward
When about 20 of his young warriors raided settlements on the
way, killing several whites, the army pursued. Joseph
surrendered on October 5, 1877, saying in his speech: "I am
tired of fighting. . . . It is cold, and we have no blankets. The
little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them,
have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food. . . . I
want to have time to look for my childen and see how many of
them I can find. . . . Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart
is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no
Although he had surrendered with the understanding that he
would be allowed to return home, he and his people were taken
first to eastern Kansas, then to a reservation in Oklahoma,
where many died of disease. Finally, in 1885, the band was
returned to the Pacific Northwest, but Jospeh was taken to a
non-Nez Perce reservation in northern Washington, separated
from his people in Idaho and their Wallowa Valley homeland.
The "voice of conscience for the West," he died in 1904, having
expressed the hope that America's promise of freedom and
equality might one day be fulfilled for its original inhabitants.
I had it right in the 50s. The Old West was a morality play of
sorts. But if that's the case, and Iâ€™m convinced that it is,
why do we persist in teaching our children the Saturday matinee
version of history and continue dehumanizing people of other
races, nations and beliefs?