Blurring the Lines: Indians, Cowboys, and Ranching in the Modern West

7 minute read

Iverson, Peter. When Indians Became Cowboys: Native Peoples and Cattle Ranching in the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Iverson Book Cover

Even growing up in suburban Connecticut, where the closest you got to a cowboy was attending a football game involving the Dallas Cowboys, we still invariably played Cowboys and Indians at some point. While no one could ever answer why it was cowboys and Indians and not Indians and the cavalry, the basic idea that the mythic west had a firm dichotomy between the good and the bad was firmly in place, even if as an eight year old all I wanted to do was run and and imagine shooting at people, rather than consider the deeper symbolic meanings of recess games. Even though our larger cultural image of cowboys is firmly rooted in the image of the Marlboro Man, a stoic white male, academics have noted that “cowboy” began as a racial epitaph for African Americans working cattle drives.1 Yet more shockingly for childhood memories and recess games, as evidenced by the title of Peter Iverson’s book, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Native Americans increasingly moved into the cattle business and developed into cowboys on par with their Euro-American neighbors. While Euro-American and Indian ranchers came into conflict over grazing rights and land allotments, the rise of the urban west in the latter half of the twentieth century has presented the interesting fact that today white ranchers have come to increasingly feel like the Indians of the nineteenth century thanks to the growing divide between rural and urban and the rapidly diminishing availability of open grazing lands. As such by the start of the new millennium the Indians had developed into cowboys and the cowboys had become Indians.

Over the course of eight chapters, Iverson documents the role of cattle in Native culture, the rise of cattle ranching as a viable option to confront a changing society following the Civil War, and how government policies during the Great Depression and Post-World War II years influenced the structure of modern Native ranching. His concluding chapter highlights the development of Indian rodeos and the shift to the modern urban west and the similarities between modern Indian and Euro-American cowboys. The first two chapters of the book largely provide background on the introduction of cattle and other livestock into the American West following the arrival of Europeans, particularly the Spanish. While largely background material, the chapter makes the important point that over time cattle, while not native to the Americas, became a fundamental part of many Native cultures. As Iverson writes on the Diné and their traditional cultural hallmarks, “Such features [sheep, silverwork, weaving] have not always been present, or certainly evolved over centuries. But it does not matter from whence they came. What matters is how the people perceive and define them.” (p. 14)2 The same can be said of tribes in the Southwest and the Great Plains that have made cattle ranching a central part of their culture. While ranching allowed Indians to enter the market economy in the last decades of the nineteenth century, “the importance of this pastime must also be seen as well in a social and cultural context” that contributed both to tribal identity and individual self-esteem. (Ibid.) As with later works that examine the introduction of Natives into market economies, Iverson notes that for the San Carlos Apache, “Being cowboys had allowed them to be Indians.” (p. 181)3

Indian Cowboys on the Fort Berthold Reservation working cattle

After his discussion of the introduction of livestock, Iverson provides an overview of the development of cattle ranching in the second half of the nineteenth century. The chapter “Indian Lands and the Cattle Industry” most clearly highlights how the book began with a focus on non-Native ranching and their interactions with American Indians. While Native Americans embraced cattle during the period as a more viable option than the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ push for farming, non-Native ranching during the period largely developed thanks to the availability of Native lands following the implementation of the allotment policy. Even though some tribes managed to succeed during the period thanks to government agents that worked to balance Indian needs and Euro-American desires, the allotment policy was an overwhelming disaster, particularly for tribes in the northern plains which lost millions of acres to large corporations that hindered tribal economic prospects going forward and focused many tribal members to migrate off reservations. It should be noted, Iverson’s book does not provide a comprehensive overview of the policy or its effects on tribes in the American West, while his title indicates an overarching survey of ranching, Iverson confines himself to explorations of tribes he is deeply familiar with, notably those near his two main teaching stints at the University of Wyoming and the University of Arizona. While Oklahoma shares a chapter title with the Southwest (Iverson does not classify Oklahoma as the Southwest, he just sees it more closely aligned with the Southwest than the Northern Plains), but state is mostly absent from the book, largely because the lack of reservations hinders a discussion of Native cattle ranching following the creation of the twin territories and statehood.

Finally of particular importance to this site’s focus on Indian Rodeos, Iverson includes an epilogue that covers the development of Indian Rodeos. Like Euro-American rodeos, the concerts developed as communal gatherings and ways for individuals to demonstrate their prowess with horses and cattle. Yet, Iverson argues Indian Rodeos have an added cultural significance that, at least at first, embraced the social and cultural aspects of rodeo rather than the ability to earn money for their skills. Indian Rodeos, however, largely developed in a similiar manner to their non-Native equivalents. Initially “amateur hours” that involved a circle of wagons or cars and the inclusion of traditional Native games and horse races, over time Indian rodeos became professional with the formation of governing bodies and structured competitions and increased earnings. (p. 196) Also worth noting for this site is the fact that Indian rodeos became more professional during the 1930s as a result of the influx of cash onto reservations thanks to the Indian New Deal. Iverson notes that tribes in Arizona used government funds to construct formal arenas where they held rodeos and tribal fairs, which fostered larger rodeos and ultimately the creation of the Navajo Rodeo Association in 1958 (the association is now known as the All-Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association). (p. 199)

Iverson’s epilogue contrasts this development of Indian cowboys with the urbanization of the west and the decline of white ranching, noting in the second half of the epilogue that many farmers and ranchers “feel certain…that they are facing the same dispossession that cost those Indians their land only a hundred years ago.” (p. 208) Even though Iverson seeks to portray a new western identity for ranchers that removes the racial aspects that plagued the region for over a century, he ultimately fails to show that Anglo ranchers have truly embraced Native Americans as anything more than a cheap historical parallel to their current situation. As evidenced as the continued embrace of stereotypical claims of “native privileges,” many white ranchers in the twentieth-first century continue to remain as much at odds with their Native counterparts as their forebearers were a century before. Nevertheless, issues aside, Iverson deserves credit for being the first to provide an overview of Native ranching and one of the first “New Western history” books to take his narratives through the twentieth century.

  1. Tracy Owens Patton and Sally M. Schedlock, “Let’s Go, Let’s Show, Let’s Rodeo: African Americans and the History of Rodeo,” in The Journal of African American History 96 (Fall 2011), 507. Patton and Schedlock note that traditionally whites were referred to as “cow hands” while African Americans were classified as “cow boys” following the juvenilization of American Africans typified by the use of “boy.” 

  2. For a more detailed discussion of the centrality of sheep to Diné culture see Martha Weisiger’s Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country (University of Washington, 2011) which importantly takes seriously the Diné claims that sheep pre-dated their arrival in the current world. 

  3. See also Brian Hosmer, Indians in the Marketplace: Persistance and Innovation Among Menominees and Metlakatlans, 1870-1920 (University of Kansas, 1999) and Paige Raibmon, Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast (Duke University Press, 2005) for other examples of American Indians using the market economy to bolster tribal identities.