Twelve Days of Christmas and Cowboys (I)

Calgary Stampede contestants, 4 July 2015

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This semester I taught, with a colleague in Film and Media Studies, a new class called “West, Cowboys, Nature, Myth.” This was a pedagogical experiment in a couple of ways: Bucknell has just made such “integrated perspectives” (team-taught) class mandatory; and we wanted to see if we could get students to query images of the west, and their implications for environmental sustainability.

In the spirit of the season, here are the first of twelve lessons (sadly, no carols) from the class, based on the topics we covered and films that we used. Each week included many films; we screened a feature-length film once a week, and then crammed several more clips, usually archival, into class time. There’s reams of good video at the Library of Congress and Internet Archive, but colleagues in Film Studies can find the most amazing material. I had almost no expertise in film analysis, and loved learning a new vocabulary of genres, techniques, and philosophies. At the same time, in each class we were surprised at how much overlap there was between film and history, and how much material there was relating to the west, ranching, and environmental change.


Topic: Where is the West?
Film: John Ford, Stagecoach, 1939.
Lesson: Myth sticks

We asked students to watch Stagecoach before term began to give them a reference point for the classic western … and it proved a little too successful. I think the biggest surprise for us was how resilient their ideas about what a cowboy, the west, and the western should look like. Films that challenged these – art films, revisionist films – seemed to make little impact, while John Wayne appeared in more than half of the final assignments. I’m a little sick of John Wayne. And I’m a little unsettled by the prospect that their thinking about the environment didn’t budge much, either.


Topic: Acquiring the West
Film: National Film Board, The Musical Ride, 1954.
Lesson: We need more transnational history

Most of this class was about Manifest Destiny, another concept learned in high school and accordingly part of their mental bedrock. But nobody knew anything about Canadian parallels in mechanisms of state authority and reconfiguring the landscape to claim it, materially and symbolically. Most of the film we watched was, not surprisingly, American, though the students yelped when a young Ryan Gosling appeared in Nothing Too Good for a Cowboy (1998). (Matthew Barney linked Utah to Alberta in Cremaster 2 (1999), but almost nobody understood it.) And yet every week there were connections back and forth across the border.


Topic: Ranching and Ranchlands
Film: Howard Hawks, Red River, 1948.
Lesson: It’s difficult to teach seasonality

This class was about how ranching works, as industrial agriculture. County atlases were great for the physical and spatial arrangement of individual ranches, but it is really difficult to convey the physicality of ranching, the seasonal rhythms of raising animals, and the interventions of climate and weather. Ultimately, we’re still in a classroom in Pennsylvania, with students mostly from the eastern seaboard. And film westerns are rarely actually about cattle (or sheep, or even horses, for that matter). Yes, Red River was John Wayne again, but it does portray an actual cattle drive. I wanted desperately to find a 1921 silent film about a round-up at the Bar-U, but it is one of the majority of silent-era films considered lost; the NFB has a good “year in the life” portrait with Cattle Ranch (Guy L. Coté, 1961).


Topic: The Western Genre/Gaze
Film: Skyworks, “Grant-Kohrs Ranch from the Air,” 2012 and Parks Canada, “The Bar U: Where Ranching History Comes Alive,” 2012
Lesson: Teaching the imagined as real is a challenge

The concept of the “Western genre” obviously speaks more to film, and my co-instructor did an amazing job tracing its evolution by decade, from Tom Mix to the spaghetti western. Since I didn’t know the first thing about film history, I thought instead about a Western gaze: how we (especially non-Westerners) consume the west visually in paintings, maps, advertisements, or places. Which was really a backdoor into my own interest in historic sites, so we compared the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Montana (founded by a Métis, and a Dane!) and the Bar U Ranch in southern Alberta. The aerial flyover of GRKO gave us a good sense of the value of scenic space, and the Parks Canada video had us asking how – and why – we sell the west as an historical destination. But did our students ever see them as real places, affected by by the political and environmental histories and issues we talked about? How do we best teach about the process of representing physical landscapes, and not just the result? And do virtual mediums really help us understand new places, places we have not yet stood in?


Topic: Landscape, Identity, Gender and Masculinity
Film: EDS, “Herding cats,” Superbowl commercial, 2000.
Lesson: Sometimes it’s better to go with the inverse

Masculinity belongs with Manifest Destiny and John Wayne in that category of the ubiquitous, inescapable, and relatively pat answer in talking about westerns and cowboys. And we certainly screened plenty of material that spoke to the stereotype. This ad’s stories of hardened cat-herders “bringing ten thousand half-wild shorthairs” into town with care satirize the presentation of male on/and frontier, and breaks the weightiness of Wayne’s foot treads. It’s also worth reading about the troubling sexual politics of Calgary during Stampede – another, much less starry-eyed, view of masculinity and power.


Topic: Landscape, Identity, Race
Film: Ken Burns & PBS, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Untold Stories”: “Yosemite’s Buffalo Soldiers,” 2005-.
Lesson: The Internet is a frightening place

Louis Brandeis wrote a hundred years ago that “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” and the Internet is still a place where people can write from shadow. Don’t Google “cowboy” and “president,” because you will find appallingly derogatory and bigoted things said and drawn about the sitting president of the United States from the “we want our country back” demographic. And despite the debates over Redskins or Eskimos as franchises, “cowboys and Indians” is a phrase – and, in the case of the latter, stereotype – with remarkable staying power. But the story of Shelton Johnson, the ranger who has researched and interprets the history of African-American buffalo soldiers in the national parks, is a great entrée into discussing race, its effacement and recovery, in the historical record, as well as the racial dimensions of our ideas and places of wilderness. Also: despite the much, much greater prominence given to discussions of race in the United States, there is very little reference to First Nations.


… How will our heroine deal with hamburger? Big oil? Ronald Reagan? Stay tuned!

I’m aware that the tone of this post is a bit pessimistic. I loved this class, and all the directions we went, and all the material we found … I think what you’re reading is just end-of-term weariness.


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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.


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