The Reclamation of the American Cowboy

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Essential Question

How has the image and history of the American cowboy been reclaimed in the 21st Century?

Overview

In this lesson, students will explore how the myth of the American cowboy developed by analyzing historic images, music, and film posters. Students will consider how the white American cowboy and the romanticization of the West excluded people of color, despite the historical existence of Black and brown cowboys. Finally, they will participate in a station activity where they will analyze sources that provide different perspectives and interpretations of the cowboy. 

When the word “cowboy” is mentioned, images of western film stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper may be the first thing to come to mind. This Hollywood version of the cowboy is usually portrayed as a hero who leaves a trail of destruction in their wake, and is regularly juxtaposed by harmful stereotypes of Native Americans. For over a century, this version of the cowboy has been an emblem of Americana–but it is one that oversimplifies and ignores the true origin of the figure.

The profession of the cowboy most likely originated in 17th century Mexico, when Native American and Hispanic vaqueros practiced the livestock herding traditions first developed in Spain. Centuries later, the vaquero lifestyle moved to the Western United States. Following the Civil War, Black freedpeople migrated to the West to escape the discrimination of the South, joining Native American and Mexican Americans in this profession.

Soon, the notion of the cowboy working in the untamed “frontier” of the American West reached the Eastern United States, and the cowboy became a romanticized figure in the American imagination. One of the most prolific people to advance this romanticized image was none other than Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States who is often referred to as the “Cowboy President.” Growing up a sickly child New York, Roosevelt developed an obsession with the cowboy which he maintained throughout his life. As an adult, he took up big game hunting and ventured West in 1883 to hunt bison, at a time when the animal was nearing extinction due to over-hunting by settlers. He would regularly take photographs in a Manhattan studio outfitted in cowboy attire, made frequent trips to the Dakotas, and bought two ranches in the West. 

During the Spanish American War, Roosevelt led the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, which he called the “Rough Riders.” The term was borrowed from Williams Frederick Cody, otherwise known as “Buffalo Bill” Cody. A soldier and professional bison hunter, Buffalo Bill likewise played an enormous role in developing the romanticized notion of the cowboy. In the 1870s, his “adventures” began being published in print, and their market success inspired a traveling show that featured horses, shooters, and dramatic reenactments of battles between cowboys and Native Americans, who were usually depicted negatively as aggressors and the enemy. These performances were accompanied by Buffalo Bill’s Cowboy Band, a brass band led by cornet player William Sweeney which played heroic and lilting music to fit the spectacle’s adventurous spirit. The show was immensely popular and traveled around the globe.

The popularity of live Wild West shows caught the attention of the burgeoning film industry in the early 1900s. Starting with the 1903 silent short film The Great Train Robbery, “Westerns” became their own immensely popular film genre. White men such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood became synonymous with the cowboy figures they played in movies. In their celebration of the romanticized cowboy lifestyle, such films usually neglected to acknowledge the destruction to Indigenous land and violence towards Native Americans caused by white settlers, and all but erased the presence of Black and brown cowboys who worked in the American West.  

In spite of the whitewashing of the cowboy and the romanticization of the West, in the 21st century people of color have begun reclaiming the cowboy image, and remind audiences of a more accurate history of the American west. The vaquero origins of the U.S. cowboy is still seen in Regional Mexican music. Legends like Joan Sebastian and Los Tigres del Norte don cowboy hats for performances. Sebastian was known for performing on horseback and Los Tigres del Norte’s catalogue is composed primarily of “corridos,” which originally were narratives of cattle drivers living near the border. Today, 20 year old Norteño artist Christian Nodal is rarely seen without a cowboy hat. The vaquero lives on in Regional Mexican music. 

Other artists and creatives of color have used their medium to reclaim or re-imagine the cowboy as an American figure. Indie rockstar Mitski named her fifth album “Be the Cowboy,” as a response to the stereotypical white cowboy “being able to do whatever they wanted.” Numerous Black artists have reinserted themselves into the cowboy narrative, reminding people that there were Black cowboys in the American West. Singer-songwriter Solange dedicated her fourth album to her hometown of Houston, TX and the Black cowboys she grew up seeing. The imagery of Black cowboys is found throughout the album’s accompanying film. Rapper Lil Nas X caused controversy with his trap-country hit “Old Town Road,” which wasn’t seen as a country enough by gatekeepers and was accused of appropriating country. 

Outside of music, Black fashion designers Telfar Clemmons (Telfar) and Kerby Jean-Raymond (Pyer Moss) have used the cowboy and Western imagery in their collections. Jean-Raymond’s first collection included actual Black cowboys in its campaign: the Compton Cowboys. Even before their collaboration with Jean-Raymond, the Compton Cowboys had a strong social media presence, spreading their mission of keeping Compton kids off the streets with horseback riding. 

While Roosevelt and the popularity of the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows helped make the cowboy the representation of the Western American hero and the epitome of white American masculinity, these artists have reclaimed both the spirit and historical realities of the cowboy.

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Objectives

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The evolution of the cowboy from a working class ranch hand to a symbol of American masculinity
    • The roles of President Theodore Roosevelt and “Buffalo Bill” Cody in developing the romantic image of the American West
    • The music that often accompanied Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show 
    • The reclamation of the cowboy and cowboy culture through, actual cowboys such as the Compton Cowboys, fashion brands such as Telfar and Pyer Moss, and artists of color such as Mitski, Solange, Lil Nas X, Los Tigres del Norte, Joan Sebastian, and Christian Nodal
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will analyze how the American cowboy became a glorified myth that celebrated white masculinity, and how communities of color have reclaimed the cowboy and its history separate from the myth. 

Activities

Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students to list on a piece of paper the images, ideas, or attributes that come to mind when they think of a cowboy. The ask students:
    • What are some of the things you wrote down that came to mind when you think of a cowboy?
    • Where might your ideas about cowboys have come from? Have you ever met a professional cowboy?
    • Do cowboys still exist? If so, what do they do?
    • What are some ways real cowboys might differ from their representation in the media?
  2. Show Image 1, Historic Cowboy. Tell students this is a historic photograph of a cowboy, and ask them:
    • In what ways does this image meet your expectations of a cowboy? In what ways might it not?
    • What do you think daily life was like for the cowboy featured in the photograph? How might have they made a living?
  3. Now show Image 2, The Westerner. Ask students:
    • What is this image?
    • What differences do you see between the historical photo and this film poster?

Procedure:

  1. Tell students that they will be examining the ways the cowboy, who was first known as a vaquero in Mexico, became such a symbol of American masculinity–and how recent artists of color have been reclaiming the image of the cowboy.
  2. Show Image 3, Theodore Roosevelt Recalls The West. Ask a student to read the quote aloud, then ask students:
    • Do you know who is featured in this image? Is the name familiar?
    • Using your own words, how does Roosevelt describe the West? How does he describe life in the West? How does he describe the people living in the West?
    • Examine the picture. Does it look to be taken outside, or in a studio?
    • This photograph was taken in a studio in Manhattan, New York. Why might have Roosevelt wanted to take a picture of himself dressed in a cowboy outfit?
    • Roosevelt was often ill as a child. Growing up in New York City, he became enamored with the West. Based on the quote, what might have appealed to Roosevelt about the West?
  3. Tell students that Roosevelt remained enamored with the West and cowboys his entire life. During the Spanish American War, he led the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, which he called the “Rough Riders”, a term he borrowed from Williams Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Buffalo Bill was a soldier and professional bison hunter who created a traveling “Wild West Show” that popularized the adventurist idea of the “Wild West.” 
  4. Show Clip 1, “Equestrian (Buffalo Bill) March.” Tell students the image in the clip is a poster advertising one of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, and the music is a reconstruction of what would be likely heard at one of the performances. Ask students to write down any observations they make about the images, words, and music presented in the clip. After students share some of their observations, ask them:
    • How do the images and words on the poster reinforce the idea of the West and the cowboy described by Theodore Roosevelt?
    • What sorts of people or activities might be missing in the poster, which was part of life in the West?
    • How would you describe the music you heard in the clip? Does it remind you of anything else?
  5. Play Clip 2, “Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad, a traditional American song performed by musician Dom Flemons. Ask students to play attention to the instruments and the lyrics. Then ask students:
    • What observations did you make of the second song? How did it sound to you? What did you picture in your head as it played?
    • In what ways does this song differ from the “Equestrian March” you listened to earlier?
    • What were the lyrics of this song about? Who’s perspective might be represented in these lyrics?
    • Which of the two songs might be more likely to be played by actual cowboys? Which might be more representative of the lifestyle of a cowboy? Why?
  6. Display Image 2, The Westerner once again. Ask students:
    • How is this poster similar to the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show poster? Do you see any common themes shared between the two?
    • Who might be the audience for these images and these films?
    • What do you think the goals were in depicting the cowboy in this way? What narratives are missing in these depictions? Do you think it was intentional?
    • Who is not being represented in these images? How might such a person feel when seeing them?
  7. Play Clip 3, James Baldwin on Gary Cooper. Tell students the following video was a debate that took place in 1965 between writers James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr., at Cambridge University. After watching the clip, ask students:
    • What might Baldwin mean when he says “ it comes as a great shock when the same flag you pledge allegiance to does not pledge allegiance to you”?
    • Baldwin goes on to say “it comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper that the Indians were you…” What might he mean by this?
    • What is Baldwin saying about the problematic cowboy vs. “Indians” trope and how does it relate to race relations in the U.S.?
    • Why does Baldwin use the example of the Western here? What larger point might he be making about growing up a Black person in the United States? 
  8. Tell students they will now be examining the ways people of color have begun reclaiming the idea of the cowboy. In groups, have students visit the six stations below. Students can either provide answers to the questions in each station on a scrap piece of paper or with this Station Question Worksheet.
  9. Pending time, have student groups visit a single station, or rotate through multiple stations. Once the activity is completed, have each group share their discussions and what they learned. Students not presenting should take notes on scrap paper or on the Station Question Worksheet.

Summary Activity:

  1. Display Image 4, Writing Prompts. Ask students to respond to the images on a scrap piece of paper. Alternatively, teachers may ask students to discuss each question in small groups.
  2. Ask students or student groups to share their responses with the rest of the class.   

Extension Activities:

  1. Watch the short film for Solange’s 2019 album “When I Get Home” here. After watching, write a one page response on how Solange interprets and pays homage to the cowboy culture of her hometown Houston, TX. (Note: The video contains nudity and adult themes. Teacher discretion advised.)
  2. Find a contemporary song, music video, or fashion with references to the American cowboy. Explain how it deviates from or plays into the stereotype.
  3. Read the New York Time’s article “The Last of New York’s Black Cowboys” and write a one page response.  
  4. Bri Malandro coined the term the “Yeehaw Agenda” in 2018 and created the successful Instagram account of the same name, where she documents Black people in cowboy attire. Read the Jezebel piece and write a one page response to it.   
  5. Do research on Theodore Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policy when he was president. Then, write a short paper consider how Roosevelt’s interest in cowboys and the West may have informed portions of these policies.

 

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Text Types and Purposes 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Text Types and Purposes 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Production and Distribution of Writing 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

  • Language 1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • Language 2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
  • Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Comprehension & Collaboration 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Place, and Environments
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

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