Earning her spurs
By Amanda Pelham - August 28, 2008
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys – they’re never at home and they’re always alone, cautions Waylon Jennings.
That cowboy image of weathered face, dusty Stetson, faded Levis and a Colt .45 endures in advertising, politics, tourism and music. For 150 years, we’ve known the Marlboro man, cowboy diplomacy, rodeo riding and hurtin’ tunes.
In some ways, Claire Campbell’s interest in interpreting the cowboy mystique is unexpected. After all, she’s an environmental historian and a self-professed “urban vegetarian cowgirl.” Raised in Toronto far from the cattle range, she confides that she hasn’t even come close to eating a hamburger in decades.
Still, she’s pioneering the course Cowboys in North American History and Culture (HIST 4260) in the unlikely location of the Maritimes – far from the range. The course will explore broad themes: the politics of food, environmental and ecological implications of land use, the iconic cowboy culture and stereotype-busting issues of race and gender. The fourth-year seminar course in history will frequently draw connections between historic circumstances and contemporary social issues.
“Essentially, cowboys are custodians of property, hired to protect material goods,” she says.
Anyone who’s seen a Spaghetti Western like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly knows that cowboys shepherd and graze cattle; round up and sort the herds by ranch; and drive large groups along trails to market. The romantic image of the cowboy tends to obscure actual working conditions. Often awake by 3 a.m., they faced a long day of physical labour. Cowboys often worked in isolation, through every kind of weather and sickness. Seasonal employment, inexperienced ‘greenhorns,’ and injuries were common.
“The politics of food began long before the recent movement toward a ‘100 mile diet,’” she notes.
The politics of land use will consider the stereotypical notions of the “mild west” in Canada versus the “wild west” in the United States. As western territories were being settled in the 1860s, large tracts of formerly common lands were designated as ranch space. This political move was in service to a national agenda to expand, populate and claim these regions on behalf of eastern financiers.
As an environmental historian Dr. Campbell also explores the ecological implications of “nature’s gentlemen”—as they were then known—and explores how ranchers use the land as opposed to homesteaders.
Mangy herds even prompted one of the earliest state-sponsored public health campaigns. Cows became skeletally thin and broke out in skin lesions, losing the ability to produce milk and eventually dying. Cow dipping in vats of kerosene became compulsory to combat this disease. The recent BSE crisis highlights how ranching can still raise issues of national boundaries, regional economic impacts and scientific management.
“The cowboy is real today, he remains a model for our male leaders,” she says.
In political culture, power is frequently expressed by adopting the rugged individualism of the cowboy myth. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper predictably sports a white Stetson at the Calgary Stampede, in homage to the ranching economy in Alberta. Dr. Campbell vividly recalls a photo of Ronald Regan, attired in a cowboy outfit, taken at the Rancho Del Cielo in California.
“When did ‘cowboy’ become a code for masculine?” she asks.
Cowboys lived in an isolated, largely male environment and are portrayed as models of heterosexual masculinity. But cross-dressing during dances is well documented, since some of the men would be designated to play the role of women. The relatively rare cowgirls were typically married to ranchers and worked on the range out of necessity.
African-Americans are even less visible in the cowboy mythology, although many found themselves sent to the western frontier as cavalry. Subsequently, many applied their skills as ranch hands and cowboys.
In Canada, minority cowboys were more typically native North Americans from nearby reserves who had lost their traditional lands. Their lives had become constricted and their knowledge of the land was unparalleled. Eventually, some would join the ranching economy as cowboys.
The cowboy’s continuing presence in popular culture is part of what keeps the mystique alive. In 1997, Paula Cole had a chart topper with Where have all the cowboys gone? Cole’s song references a kind of escapism, an idealization of the cowboy as the strong provider. And in 2005, Annie Proulx’s cowboy love story contradicted assumptions and stereotypes in the most discussed movie of the year, Brokeback Mountain.
Dr. Campbell’s course will include a mix of senior undergraduate and graduate students.
“I may have to eat a burger one day just for credibility,” she jokes, adding “but the more I learn about the business, the less I’m inclined to.”
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys
Cowboys ain't easy to love and they're harder to hold.
Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys.
— Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson
Well, them ol' boys in Texas chew Copenhagen
— Ian Tyson
Where have all the cowboys gone?
Where is my Marlboro man
Yippee aw, yippee yea
— Paula Cole
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