MULTICULTURALISM AND THE WILD WEST
Nowadays we talk about ‘multiculturalism’ as if this is a new thing. In the Hollywood films from away back, cowboys are depicted as being an all-white and fairly homogenous bunch of dudes. The truth is much more interesting and strange than this highly misleading depiction of what it was like to live and work in the South-western states of America.
The Native Americans – the Facts and the Fictions
The story of many cultures begins immediately with the tribal systems. Many of the old depictions of the Wild West begin and end with the idea that the ‘Red Indians’, or Native Americans as they are now called, all dressed in buckskin with fringed jackets, made totem poles, lived in tepees and performed war dances, while incessantly making war on the white man. This, in actual fact, was not the story of the Native American at all.
Take the Apache tribe. The Apaches were split into a number of different tribes, such as the Jicarilla, the Chiricahua, Mescalero and Western Apaches, living in such diverse areas as Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Many of these tribes were attacked by the Spanish when the first colonies were created in that area of the world, and later by the government-sanctioned settlers during the land-grabbing era after the Civil War. The Apaches were fierce and skilful warriors. Yet they were just a section of the tribes who lived in America before the subjugation and colonization of the entire content by the Europeans.
Slaves from Africa
Another aspect of the story, of course, was the use of slaves in the Southern states of America in areas such as Alabama, where it was discovered that human labour could be imported from Africa to work on the cotton plantations. I am deeply ashamed to say that Glasgow, my own home city, was deeply implicated in the ‘slave triangle’ and many of the fine buildings to be found in that city were created by the tobacco barons who made gigantic fortunes from the crops grown in America.
When slavery was abolished, many of the slaves who had worked on the plantations were left unemployed, and many of them chose to go into the cowboy trade. Many former slaves, along with the Chinese, those of Mexican lineage and others, were just as much a part of the expansion of the Wild West as anyone. They were not just cowboys, although it has been estimated that a fourth of all cowboys were black. They were farmers, and miners, explorers, scouts, drivers of stagecoaches and wagons, outlaws and lawmen and just about any other trade you could think of in the nineteenth-century American West.
One fine example of this is the story of Nat Love, who was born a slave on a plantation, but by the age of fifteen had to go work, and went to Arizona to work on the Gallinger ranch, where he became an all-round cowboy. In his adult life, Love experienced many of the adventures we associate with the Wild West, including being kidnapped by Native Americans and having to steal a horse and ride 100 miles in a day to preserve his life. Known as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ he wrote his autobiography in 1902 after ending his career by working on the railroads.
Working on the Railroad
A mention must be made here of the Asians who worked on the railways. There was no heavy machinery available in those days so the railways had to be constructed using human labour, picks and shovels. Thousands of workers were brought in from China to carry out the building of the line. They were imported by the Central Pacific railway company. The tribes of the Wild West did not make it an easy job and would attack those constructing the railways. Quite rightly, the natives saw that once the iron horse came, this would cause even greater colonization of their lands. The Central Pacific Railway Company were building their line from California, at a place called Promontory joining up with a line being built by the Union Pacific Company. Ultimately, through the labour of the Chinese and black workers the two lines became one and the East and West coast of America were linked by rail.
The Spanish Influence
As well as African and Asian people, it should be mentioned that the Spanish were the original conquerors of such areas as Arizona and New Mexico, where they had a long history of enslaving the tribes of Pueblo Indians who had inhabited the area for tens of thousands of years. The Spanish influence in these states was vast. They had a major effect on the type of language spoken, foods eaten, clothing, buildings and ways of work long before the Gadsden Purchase, when the new country of America bought these lands from the Mexican government.
This same Spanish culture remains evident in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, with such place names as El Paso and Santa Fe being part of the common parlance of Western tales.
The entire USA has been called a ‘melting pot’ and it seems that the Old West, despite what the films of John Wayne would lead us to believe, was a huge part of that experience.