Perhaps thanks to Buffalo Bill, cowboy culture in Wyoming goes beyond guns and gunslingers.
One evening, I attend Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue, three-part harmonies filling the old Cody Theatre on the high street. Between folksy country songs, Dan reads The Cowboy, a poem by Red Steagall. “The city folks think that it’s over, that the cowboy has outlived his time, / An old worn-out relic, a thing of the past, but the truth is, he’s still in his prime. / The cowboy’s the symbol of freedom, the hard-ridin’ boss of the range. / His trade is a fair one, he fights for what’s right, and his ethics aren't subject to change.”
“Wyoming is one of the last of the true cowboy cultures,” says Dan after the show. “While there are still large working ranches in many states, Wyoming still embraces the ‘cowboy lifestyle’ and mindset. Good, honest, straightforward, hard-working people who still practise cowboy ethics. Cowboy music is slipping away from the culture, but the cowboy way of life is still deeply embedded in our DNA.”
There were two sides of the story of the old West, though. “It was the destruction of culture - genocide, depopulation, loss of families,” says Emma Hansen, curator of Cody’s Plains Indian Museum. “Europeans moved in, farmers, buffalo hunters. Through the 1800s, there was a lot of warfare, fighting over land and hunting regions. Settlers wanted land and Native Indians were put on reservations, often without resources. There was a lot of breaking treaties and agreements. Diseases, like smallpox and cholera, came in, and missionaries bringing a new God. Technology and the gun had a huge effect on Indian people. Like the Gatling gun – I’ve seen the ammo and it’s huge. You have to think what effect that would have had on people, on the body.”
Bison (an estimated 3-5 million across the Great Plains) that Indians depended on for food and skins were taken close to extinction by hunters such as Buffalo Bill. “The new buffalo guns meant they could kill more buffalo, pick them off hundreds at a time,” says Hansen. “It had a huge influence on the way of life for Indians. By 1870, there were hardly any buffalo left. Millions of animals were killed for meat and hides. The tribes all have stories about their last buffalo hunt.”
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