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  • Karl Thunemann

The Land Makes Indians of Us All

This post will enrage some and baffle others. I’ve been ordering books with titles like “Shrapnel Maps” (poetry about the Middle East) and “The Unflattening” (graphic book about thought.) But it is really about my axis mundi, the east slope of the Rockies, the prairie. Cowboy movies.

Here’s my premise: The land makes Indians of us all. Here’s my definition of “Indians”: indigenous people shape themselves to the land and allow the land to enter and shape them in turn. Real cowboys do the same. I think I’d start using the term “indie” except that it already means “independent” and while I don’t reject “independent” it’s only part of a complex and shifting whole.

So much thought, labeled “Western” is really Euro-centric philosophical “flat” thought between individuals (defined as what they are conscious of) and land/people who are merely indicators, cut-outs, not quite real. My version of “Western” is based partly on a body of visual story “literature” about individuals trying to come to terms with the inevitable gap between justice and law, because they live in a displaced and almost dissociated role. So they travel until they find a place that fits, if they can, and then they are “Indians” just as the first people to arrive became part of the land and so survived.

Reading the essay linked above about the “RENOWN” Westerns streamed on, I was surprised to have a strong physical reaction — my heart leapt up. I trembled. So I began to watch one of the films, “Seven Men from Now” with Randolph Scott. Slowly it dawned on me that my thinking about the Rip Tide of thought that has exploded our understanding of the world but not shaken the evil of it, has survived the abandonment of Westerns by reinventing it in the Star Wars world and has only replaced the Space of the Prairie with the Space of the Cosmos.

… These men, who stood for principles at the turn of the 19th century, stood against what became the 20th century, the hundred years of war and depression.

In this old 1956 story the Chiracawa are said to be “dangerous.” The Randolph Scott character says, “Worse. They’re hungry.” I reckon that hasn’t changed. He’s an argument for the kind of autocrat who knows what he’s doing for the greater good. The repartée is sometimes a little corny or sexist, but it’s free of frat jokes. The most unWestern aspect is all the rain. But the romance is according to the template. Scott wears two wedding rings, his and hers because his beloved wife is dead. The new woman didn’t forget to pack her lipstick or her Maidenform bra. She knows that the suffering of this man gives her permission to love him.

This is the part of the Edwardian Era that came to life through actors in Westerns. Consider this little chart:

Alan Ladd b. 1913

Henry Fonda b. 1905

Randolph Scott b. 1898

Gary Cooper b. 1901

Joel McCrea b. 1905

Jimmy Stewart b. 1908

John Wayne b 1907

And then Bob Scriver b. 1914. Now you understand better his attraction for me. Because these men, who stood for principles at the turn of the 19th century, stood against what became the 20th century, the hundred years of war and depression. Now — just as we thought we were balanced and prosperous, our eyes are opened again to the destruction and denial for billions of displaced and suffering people — this time watched on glass screens and also destroying the land. Or maybe camped on the neighborhood sidewalk.

Now the women are taking charge and outlawing rape in all its aspects. Suffering does not call them to comfort to strong men — they do not tolerate what the heroes depicted above did to achieve what they call justice. Yet my basic life-frame is still anchored in those gunmen, those killers and “sheriffs.” But so are the “Proud Boys” and self-appointed right wing militias that attack the Capitol and the Portland police. How am I to reconcile this new justice with some old human laws? What stories need to be written?

I went through a time of writing for Rope and Wire, a website dedicated to classic Western stuff, ( but I never could get close to what I wanted to write. Only Tom Sheehan could write Westerns as spare and taut as these Western films and he won prizes for it. But I left to go off on metaphysical and neuro-research topics. Now I want to bring all this new knowledge back around to Western-but-not-Euro stories.

One clue is what is being called the “Right to Violence” which is at the heart of the movies and today’s reality. The idea is that if an evil and injustice is major and destructive enough, it is justified to use force to end it, whether it is police work or military weapons or public demonstrations. Self-defense and killing to protect the lives of innocents has always been the source of the Right to Violence. But is it really a “right” and who gives that right if God is in question?

It is basic to the founding of this country that we had the right to fight violently to be separate. Is that over now? Necessary violence is often shaped by the time and place, as in Westerns. It is admitted by historians that the coalition of colonies won the war through the strategies of terrain known by the indigenous peoples: guerrillas, knowers of points of constriction or exposure. where the blind corrals ended, how to survive the long waterless sea-bottoms of the bitter grass peneplains. How to set and evade wild fires.

These are the sources of the philosophies of the West, life-threatening but often exalting. Always able to survive until now. But that was partly because the land-shaped people wanted the community to survive more than they wanted the individual to survive. So does war. But I loved these actors in their multiple incarnations of the individual, always principled, honorable, and competent. Now to write towards reconciliation.


Mary Strachan Scriver is a retired Unitarian minister who lives in Valier, Montana


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