I’m gonna talk about my people. Let’s zero in on what I call Best Western Legends (apologies to the hotel chain of the same name). These are deeply held beliefs you’ll find among ranchers, cowboys, prairie Moms, and horses way out west where the deer and the antelope play.
First, a review of my credentials…mind you, this is both sides of the family.
- I’ve got cousins named Suede and Ribbon.
- When Grandma was offered the choice between getting indoor plumbing or a bigger window at Cow Camp, she chose the window (I’m not saying she was wrong).
- Aunt Ula (pronounced YOOOO-la) always used stickers saying “eat more beef!” on all greeting cards, no matter the occasion.
- Clem didn’t mind the plague of grasshoppers that descended onto the plains of Colorado in nineteen-ought-30-something because it cut down on turkey feed.
- I know what salt licks taste like.
- Grandpa Butch intrigued enough minor Western painters that some steakhouses in Arizona have a painting of him as part of the décor.
- My sister and I were each given toys made out of leather from an elk that Grandpa had shot and Grandma had tanned, sewed, and stuffed with cattails (the plant, not the house pet…though frankly, who knows?)
- I prefer venison to either bison or bear.
- Grandad never did finish the house he was building out on the prairie, so Grandmom and the 4 kids lived in a basement with a staircase ending in a door that opened directly out onto the wide windswept plains. They re-tarred the roof every so often, which was about 2 feet off the land. Fun to climb on and jump off of for us grandkids, and it was the best place to be if a tornado rolled through.
Onto the legends.
We’ve been here since the rocks cooled
The central message is that my people have ALWAYS been here. We like to compare ourselves to the French tending vineyards in Normandy that were planted before the Dark ages. We like to think we’re just like modern Napolitanos building over the ruins of Pompei. We like to think we belong to the land, and the land belongs to us.
The facts are different. Not counting wandering fur traders or Conquistadores traveling north from New Spain, my people didn’t get to points west of Saint Louis until gold was found in 1858. That’s about six generations, not 60. We aren’t the first settlers from Europe, we aren’t the original people, and we’re the reason the original people are on reservations. We don’t like talking about that. It means maybe our roots aren’t quite as deep as we’d like to believe. Talking about it churns up a deep well of insecurity about our history, our ancestors, and our status. Instead, we fill the void with the myth that we’ve been in the West “forever”, and that the native Americas “just left”.
We’re tough, resilient, and self-reliant
This one depends on what you mean by “self-reliant”. My forebears were tough and resilient. They could build a log cabin, smoke out a family of skunks living under it, divert a stream to water the cattle, make their own soap out of lye and hog fat, and put up enough canned peaches to last until Spring. They did community barn raisings and coordinated group flea-dips for the yearlings. They were skilled in minor medical operations such as how to pull a fish hook out of Luce’s kid’s hand without a doctor, and then disinfect with old bootleg whiskey.
However, there’s another type of self-reliance: financial. These days, people depend on roads and hospitals, even out on the prairie. Laura Ingalls, of Little House fame, wrote about how the Ingalls family raised enough money to help sister Mary attend a school for the blind, but omitted the fact that her family only paid for transportation. Tuition was paid for by the state. This is because the myth of complete off-the-grid self-reliance is so deeply engrained, that it’s considered shameful to ask for help and sinful to receive it. Because of this belief, modern necessary public benefits such as highways, healthcare, and social security is not considered part of the “government” (bad), but part of “normal life” (good). Maybe some rebranding would help?
There’s Righteousness in Strength
My people seem to be some confusion about the difference between right and might. It’s not just out West where this happens – have you seen any superhero movies lately? King Arthur’s knights had this belief baked into them, too. Even lawyers in Staten Island approve. Whoever won the hand-to-hand combat was in the right. It was inconceivable to the medieval mind that you could be in the right and lose a fight. Losers are always wrong. Winners are always right. That’s what justice is all about.
However, it would be a terrible thing to use raw power in the aid of corruption, to oppress the weak, or to rob and kill with impunity. Therefore, it logically follows that if there’s a perceived injustice, it’s probably because those being oppressed deserved it somehow. Or maybe it didn’t really happen.
Violence is the price you pay for freedom
It’s not true that people in gun loving states don’t feel pain and sorrow when a lone gunman shoots into a concert crowd and kills people at random. It’s just considered a necessary price to pay for freedom. And what is freedom?
Freedom is No Rules
Freedom means that you make all your decisions yourself and you have the weaponry to back it up. The government is never your friend, since you have an innate right to do what you want, and they will try to stop you. The idea that we’re all part of the government because we need to contribute to a representative democracy is a foreign concept. The good side of this legend is less bureaucracy and more daily common sense. The dark side is oppressive social pressure for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the local belief system, combined with a willingness to sell weapons of war to anyone who can get to a Walmart.
Faith is better than knowledge
My people maintain a biting scorn for the well-educated. The idea that you can learn anything from books or, horrors! the scientific method, is considered a dangerous ploy of the Devil himself. Normal folk have already learned everything useful by the age of 10, and anything additional, difficult, specialized, or subtle is downright dangerous to your spiritual health. The good side is a tight knit community. The dark side is the ability to resist all evidence not physically in front of you (and sometimes even then), plus a collective amnesia for inconvenient historical facts.
You have to use the land to be worthy of the land
This is one of the founding myths of the West, and was used to justify the removal of native Americans. It goes like this: the people who were living here first never used the land, they just wandered over it. It took my people, with their knowledge of farming, ranching, animal husbandry, and mining to use the land as God intended, and hence, to become the rightful owners. Go ahead and google “manifest destiny” to get more flavor.
Rain follows the plow
No one remembers this one, but it goes along with land use. There’s a problem with land use being a necessary condition of rightful ownership: if you can’t farm it or mine it, your claim might be a bit shaky. As more people headed west, it became clear that not every acre of land can grow crops, because there’s not enough water. Thus was born the myth that “rain follows the plow”. It sounds crazy today, but people believed that if you plant crops, it will rain.
Problem is, it’s the other way around. You need sufficient rain first, then you can plant the crops. This was one of the rare legends that was actually killed by consequences: people ran out of money to plant crops in arid zones where there’s no rain and no way to irrigate. Kind of like how we’re going to run out of water from aquifers that aren’t being refilled. The myth that rain follows the plow dried up and blew away, like it never even existed.