Cowboys and Indians
(No, not Dallas and Cleveland. Think back.)
As a boy:
I played with Lincoln Logs, built forts that came with painted lead frontiersman for defense and Indians for attack. Even at that young age, I wavered a little when it came to whom I wanted to identify with. The frontiersman with a musket had a Caucasian face. The Indian was way too red, but he also had bird feathers in his hair and war paint and, let’s face it, a much more interesting color palette.
I watched six of the best John Ford movies on early television in the forties, all of them Westerns, and two men became my early heroes: Henry Fonda from Drums Along the Mohawk and My Darlin’ Clementine, and John Wayne from Stagecoach, and the three Cavalry movies. These films played again and again on those early channels, and I never tired of them. In all these movies there are Indians who are fearsome and some who are actually respected, (and yes some who are clownish, too.) In many of the Ford movies there is this slight dichotomy, even up and through The Searchers, which could be the best of all if only we could do some surgery and remove that ridiculous and badly played love triangle that sinks the middle of the film. I would gladly pay someone to edit that out. How many of you would chip in? What an unmarred classic it would become.
Clothing and names:
Still young, I gathered many books about Indians, both novels and histories and even large picture books, studies of the tribes, and I loved the wardrobe, and how the warriors painted their faces and painted their horses! Each one an individual masterpiece of magic and mysticism, and the way the women adorned themselves and decorated their hair. Brilliant. The names of the tribes conveyed to me adventure and a world so deep and different from mine: Choctaw, Cheyenne, Comanche, Cherokee, Lakota, Navajo, Osage, and that fierce and biting word: Apache.
There had been tribes everywhere in America, even where I grew up in northern Illinois. We had had the Potowatamy. Well, okay, no offence, but some of the names didn’t give me that same ticket to wonder. And too many tribes were named by outsiders. The Nez Pearce? French trappers and boatmen saw a tribe that made cuts on their noses as part of their symbolic individualism, and so this proud tribe exists in our history as the cut noses. Not fair. Most tribal names translated as ‘The People.’ That was their thinking. We are the People, others are…the Others. And sometimes their enemies named them, as in the name Apache, which the Apaches learned to carry with pride and with challenge.
In one of the later John Wayne movies, Hondo, I think, his character has a line about the waning power of the tribes. “End of a way of life. Too bad. Good way.” Okay, he didn’t write that speech, but at least he said it.
After I had strayed from Wayne and moved to Brando, I read a quote from the Duke that said “I think the Indians were selfish to fight us and not share their land.” Really? Duke? Come on. Let’s imagine this: Caucasians in the 1500s – a rural town in Belgium or Holland or England. People are farming; there are stores; trades, a system of law. One day, some of the people on the outskirts of town notice that strangers are moving into the area. An Indian tribe, for instance, and they’re putting up their own village. They use the water; they hunt.... Well the town council meets and the talk is angry and full of outrage.
The town burghers or the ‘Watch’ or whatever, walk over to the village and they’re pretty upset. “No… No, you can’t come here and do this. No. This is where WE live. You have to go somewhere else! You can’t stay here! What were you thinking?”
The Indians stare at these people, at their hats, maybe at their wooden shoes, and some of them laugh, but the older, wiser Indians say, ”We have come to share this territory and live our lives here and we ask that you don’t bother us. Don’t be so selfish, and why are your shoes made of wood?”
So, of course, the town Watch raise their blunderbusses or draw their swords and, well, there it goes again, but the other way around. So John Wayne’s statement of selfishness is just silly to me. Of COURSE the Indians fought to defend their lands and way of life.
Many of the whites called the Indians savages and pointed out how they even killed women and children on their raids. Well, gosh, guess who the whites killed when they raided Indian villages, even peaceful ones. We also gave them blankets we knew were full of smallpox. And when we saw that alcohol was very damaging to them, we made sure they got plenty of that so…. Let’s try to be fair. Let’s savor these people who shared our history, and, by the way, they’re still here. No, they didn’t disappear, didn’t die off. Some are on the reservations that were set aside for them, but many are in the towns and cities and colleges and armed forces and the trades and professions and all the lives all around us, and some of them hold special gatherings once in a while, and out come the drums and rattles and songs and shouts and the pride and that great wonder and magic they gave me, gave us all.