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20 March, 2011

Cowboys and Indians

When I was a kid, kids played Cowboys and Indians. I think this was outlawed in the 1990s, when the Right employed a strategy of allowing political correctness legislation to pass to keep the Left from focusing on substantial issues, and of course to provide fodder for ads aimed at swing states in Middle America.

There were no real rules, but the basic idea was for the cowboys to fight the Indians. Where I lived, the cowboys were supposed to win, but I imagine it was different in Pine Ridge. Anyway, it was hard to recruit Indians in most of their former territory. Even my friend (maybe especially him) who was half Cherokee wanted to be on the Right side.

It was Left to the oddballs to play Indian. So I did. I've always liked the underdog, and thought wilderness acumen and stealth seemed cooler than swagger and gunplay. Not that I was anti-violent, the flaming arrow attack also appealed to me.

It was an ignorant take on Indians and their cultures, but I'm not gonna pretend that I was enlightened at that age (or now, for that matter). Someone, maybe years after I write this, is running across the word "Indian" again and again, and getting pissed. But all the Indians I know call themselves Indians, and they never told me not to. As I write this, there is no I-word. Maybe I'll look back at this later as I do now on the noble savage of my kid consciousness. Embarrassed, maybe, but not to the point of pretending it never happened.

I write this sitting in a hotel full of cowboys. Not kids looking for Indians, but adults in their middle ages and beyond, maybe looking for childhood, or maybe just loving horses. I dunno if there's a rodeo in town or what, but there's too many cowboy boots and hats concentrated in this here inn (even by Eastern Washington standards) for a former fake Indian to feel comfortable.

I've never quite grasped the cowboy macho mystique. Big man hats nattily kempt, spotless western shirts with mother of pearl buttons, all in all no different from the cowboy in the Village People. Boots treadless and no damn good for walking around (as they walk around, while the horses stand around in trailers). Maybe most of all, though, the costumish facial hair. Big walrusy moustaches, waxy curly handlebars,... All kinds of weird stuff, but never a regular beard, and definitely not a wild-man facial forest like my own, which I'm thinking is what most of the real ones actually had.

Neither the Indians nor cowboys are wild anymore, but maybe I am.

I am in this hotel full o' cowboys because I have been visiting the Indians. Turns out I coulda stayed in the longhouse, but I didn't know, and didn't want to impose. The reason for the visit is the first foods ceremony, when the tribe gathers to honor the foods, the roots and berries and fish and four-leggeds that feed them. If the foods (who are also medicine, who are also the boss) are not honored, they may not return. If they have not been thanked, it is not right to demand more of them.

One thing I heard the elders say again and again is that the ancient ways are important, that they ensure survival, but that the children must understand and embrace their culture, know their language, respect their heritage.

In other words, many of the same sentiments that the cowboys try to pass on to their progeny. Do they see it that way, or am I a sympathizer to the Other side?

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