Cowboys and Indians in the New Age


November 12, 1992|By WALTER T. ANDERSON

As America rapidly transforms itself into a multi-cultural, multi-lingual society, its ancient myths -- especially cowboys and Indians -- have become the stuff out of which new cross-over realities are being shaped. And this not by media spin-doctors but by ordinary people themselves, including real cowboys and Indians.

On a recent trip to Denver, I happened to wander into a Western-wear store on a Sunday afternoon. The huge department-store sized building was packed with cowboy (and cowgirl) gear. In the hat department customers were literally lined up buying 10-gallon Stetsons at $200 a crack. The buyers came in all colors, young and old, yuppies, truck drivers, business executives, housewives. Probably even a few cowboys.

In America today there are really two different classes of cowboys. The occupational cowboy is a relic of a fast-disappearing past. On a recent visit to a working cattle ranch, I noticed some wearing work shoes and baseball caps. The dress cowboy, by contrast, is part of the present and the future, a true citizen of the postmodern world. His natural habitat is the airport. Spend a half hour or so in any American airport, and you are sure to spot several head of dress cowboys.

Like dress cowboys there are also lifestyle Indians as opposed to ethnic Indians -- people who for ecological, spiritual, therapeutic or plain trendy reasons want to be like Indians. They take up shamanism, go to sweat-lodge ceremonies, sit around in men's groups beating on tom-toms.

New Age people are particularly strong on the Indian lifestyle. At any given moment, there are likely to be more people beating on tom-toms in Marin County than in all of New Mexico.

America seems to be in the midst of a national Indian binge. Consider the recent movies: ''Dances With Wolves,'' ''Last of the Mohicans.'' Unlike the old-time Westerns in which the Indians tended to be bloodthirsty twits, many of the Indians in these movies are the good guys. In fact, in ''Dances With Wolves,'' you get the impression the Indians are the only good guys.

Powwows are less glitzy than the big-budget movies but no less important as part of the current Indian revival. Big inter-tribal gatherings have long been held in places like Saskatchewan and Oklahoma. But recently, smaller powwows have sprung up in places few think of as Indian country. In New Jersey, for example, powwows are now so popular that you can find one almost every weekend in the summertime. The performers are Indians, but those who pay to attend are overwhelmingly white.

Indian activists are not entirely enthusiastic about this trend. There is little evidence that the Indian revival has translated into tangible payoffs for people on the reservations, or even that New Age Indians have any serious interest in the subject. The gulf between ethnic Indians and lifestyle Indians is enormous -- much wider than the dif- ference between occupational cowboys and dress cowboys.

You might say that the post-modern cowboys are macho wheeler-dealers, the New Age Indians celebrants of spirituality and ecological consciousness. Reality, of course, is more complex.

Most Indians now wear Western clothes, for example. As an ethnic group, Indians may be the largest single cohort of dress cowboys. Many are occupational cowboys as well. They work on ranches or follow the rodeo circuit. Rodeoing is a popular sport among Indians. A few have become big-time stars, and some of the Western reservations put on their own rodeos, which are frequently better-attended than powwows.

The plot becomes murkier yet: At the Western-wear emporium in Denver, I noticed that the shirt styles are changing. You don't see so many embroidered yokes and Roy Rogers two-tones. The shirts are still flashy, but the trend is toward Native American patterns -- Navajo stripes and tribal symbols.

The cowboys are beginning to dress like Indians.

In a way, this kind of costuming seems to be a universal practice. People everywhere use clothes as a link to the past, a label of cultural identity. The American twist is the freedom of choice -- every dress cowboy and every lifestyle Indian is saying that you can still be whatever you want to be, whether or not you have any historical link to it.

And there is a second point worth noting. As the cowboys and Indians ride on into the 21st century, in curious ways they seem to be riding together, making it up as they go along.

Walter Truett Anderson, a former occupational cowboy and now a part-time dress cowboy, is a political scientist and author of ''Reality Isn't What It Used To Be.'' He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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