Continued from Legends of Myself 43
44. Cowboys and Indians and the Mythical West
In among my books somewhere there is or was an atlas of imaginary places. Middle Earth is mapped there, and Barsoom, which is the Mars of John Carter. Utopia, Atlantis, Dante’s Inferno and, I think, even Oz are included, along with numerous other places of myth and fiction which I can’t now bring to mind. But what wasn’t in there and surely should have been was a map of the Old West—as mythic a nowhere as any place dreamt up by Thomas More or L. Frank Baum.
The first dime novel, Maleaska, The Indian Wife of the White Hunter, was published in 1860. Before the movies, before the silents, before black and white or cinemascope, it was in dime novels that the Western as a genre had its beginning. Tales of the frontier dominated that form of publication for a decade or more after it was launched, and these tales continued to be important until the era of the dime novel lapsed, acquiring all the characteristics of the classic Western along the way.
Dime novels favoured the lurid and the outlandish, with plots light on character and tight on action, written by the kind of writer who could produce a title every month in addition to their day job. Careful authenticity was not among their virtues. Nor was inter-ethnic understanding.
The first dime novel came out the same year the Pony Express was launched. It is thus notable that the process of mythologization of the Old West, which took place in the dime novel, happened simultaneously with the era the novels were depicting.
Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill, the heroes of the movie “The Pony Express,” were both real historical persons and characters of fiction. Some of this fiction was the result of dime novels written about them while they were alive, some was the product of their own mouths and pens.
Both men were carnival performers at one time or other, and carnies are not notorious for their truthfulness. But somehow you can’t blame a chap for telling a few stretchers about himself given the dime novel reputations—assigned by others—which real persons somehow had to compete with.
In a genre where even real people are partly fiction to start with, you can’t expect your storylines to be historically accurate either. Contrary to what the 1953 movie suggested (and the 1925 silent movie upon which it was based) Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill never joined forces to push through the Pony Express. Hickok was elsewhere at the time recovering from a bear attack, and (Buffalo) Bill—who in 1860 hadn’t yet earned his sobriquet—was only 14 years old and may or may not have been there. (Charlton Heston was 29 and at least twice too old when he played Bill Cody in the movie.)
Western movies are often called morality plays by people who wish to speak kindly of them. But what is a morality play but a melodrama of the soul, peopled with stock characters acting in predictable ways and arriving at predictable conclusions?
In a medieval morality play, the Devil is always the enemy, is always evil, and you know him by his hue. In the settlement of the West, Indians are always the enemy, always savage (even if sometimes a noble savage) and you also know him by his hue.
The cinematic exceptions to this rule are so narrow that most apologists for the genre can characteristically recite every exception and nominee by rote, from “Broken Arrow” to “Shanghai Noon”. The proofs of this rule are so wide they are imbedded in our very language.
“Here comes the cavalry.” (To save us from the Indians.) “Circle the wagons.” (That’s right, pilgrim. It’s an Indian attack.)
Yet Aboriginal people seldom attacked wagon trains in actuality. The wagons were circled at night as protection against the wind and weather, and to shelter animals from theft.
And the US Cavalry killed more civilians than it avenged. George Armstrong Custer was famous for initiating dawn raids on civilian encampments, killing women, the elderly and children. When the policy of killing children was questioned, a cavalry general responded, “Nits become lice.”
In light of such historical realities, a cavalry charge in the context of Aboriginal people should evoke horror, or at best mixed feelings. But Western movies, who knows how many, have taught me, some inner part of me, to feel elated when I hear that bugle blow, ta-rah ta-rah, here comes Custer!
I remember—maybe you remember too—having discussions over who got to play the Indians in a cowboy and Indian fight. Nobody really wanted to be the bad guys, even if it didn’t effect the outcome of the game. And the fact that such discussions happened would bad enough even if what they concerned could be confined to the playground. But nothing ever is.
Humans play more than other animals, and need to. Play is rehearsal for a complex life, which is all very well, except that when you grow up from playing cowboys and Indians, along the way you lose the choice of whether you’re an Indian or not.
Childhood is critical for forming who we are, and what we learn there, much more than we generally realize, forms the basis of what we understand about the world as adults. And what do we learn about the history of Aboriginal people in childhood? Virtually nothing except the mythical invented Indians of Hollywood, the product of dime novels and a dime novel universe that was later filmed. When the dime novels were being written, when these images were first conceived in words, the people who wrote the words were part of a society which was then systematically stealing the lands and resources of these same Aboriginal people.
But the ones who were doing the actual writing—Easterners mostly—were at the time of writing almost as far from the real action and the real frontier as the Hollywood producers who later filmed their stories. The result was that the Indians depicted were creatures of pure imagination, coloured in with generous dollops of cultural propaganda.
If you’re going to steal someone’s land without colour of law or justice, then it’s useful to assert that such savages aren’t deserving of the land anyway. Which, implicitly, is exactly what Westerns and the Western genre do assert in respect of Aboriginal people.
As a propaganda campaign against Aboriginal people and Aboriginal interests, Westerns can be said to have been largely successful, particularly since, in the absence of the truth, the lie inevitably prevails.
It’s bad because Aboriginal people, without having any true histories available to them (no more than anyone else does) halfway believe the lies and myths themselves. It’s worse, in fact, it’s dangerous, because no one else–except some historians and specialists–knows any better, either.
Like the atavistic elation I involuntarily feel when I hear the bugle call, the lies of my youth have taken residence in my soul and I can hardly shake them out.
In 2001, I was traveling through Sicily in a bus. Among the most distinctive things in among the landscapes around me were towns I could see in the distance, situated on the tops of cliffs. Situated, I thought, like Indians on horses atop of the surrounding hills. There they were, irresistible Hollywood shadows, looking down on me from the hills of southern Italy, mocking any pretense that I had learned better.
The incident in 2001 is not itself shocking, merely illustrative. Images that are not challenged remain real. Westerns are not harmless, any more than blackface is harmless, and they are especially dangerous because—with a dash or two of salt—most of us somehow accept that what they relate to is true.
Except it isn’t. And never was. Not even a little bit.
Blackface was created in mockery of African Americans. The Cowboy and Indian movie served a similar function in respect of Aboriginal people. These works were never in reference to history.
Outside of whatever value they might have or have had as art, their primary social function is as propaganda, as a replacement for history.
And, no, not even in 1958, were they ever suitable for children.
Continued @ Legends of Myself 45