A Note From Pete:

Thanks to all who have responded to guest articles in the Pete Simpson Forum.

There have been disagreements and widely differing opinions – all of them stimulating; and, all civil. Witness the discussions of this month’s pieces by Professors Phil Roberts and Nina McConigley. Roberts’ inspired particularly passionate responses – some enthusiastic, some critical. And, no wonder! For Wyomingites, whether offspring of multiple generations or newly self-proclaimed, the image of the cowboy – mythical or real, stereotypical or fanciful introduces a question of identity and questions of identity are personal. Yet, common ground I think emerges from the shared belief that Wyoming is both legitimately “The Cowboy State” and “The Equality State.” How so? I agree with what Roberts once suggested; that it was because the former is “historical” and the latter “aspirational” — and both apply. Would Wyomingites settle for that? Albert Sommers, a cattle rancher in Sublette County and a state legislator in the Wyoming House of Representatives, contends otherwise in his thoughtful essay below. Both he and Phil would, I’m sure, welcome your comments — as would I.

— Peter K. Simpson


Wyoming’s cowboy identity isn’t all mythology

Guest Essay by Albert Sommers
— December 6, 2013
Albert Sommers

Phil Roberts’ essay “Equality State or Cowboy State” asks us to choose between being the Equality State or the Cowboy State. By shining a negative light on the cowboy, he makes the case that Wyoming’s only good choice for the future is to refocus as the Equality State.

It is ironic that Roberts chooses to elevate the concept of equality by pushing down a sector of society, the cowboy.  He pursues this line of reasoning to the point of equating the cowboy culture of old with the slave culture of the South. Roberts repeatedly characterizes the cowboy as unskilled, floating, itinerant, lacking in ambition and ignorant.

This stereotyping fails to equate to the horrors of slavery, fails to accurately assess the cowboy culture, but does slide down a slippery path that others have used to disparage cultures other than their own. Roberts’s essay is polarizing, and that is the last thing we need in the highly polarized landscape that exists in America today. I contend that Wyoming can be both the Equality and the Cowboy State, and that by embracing the cowboy spirit of individualism, independence, hard work, love of land, and help thy neighbor we can foster a spirit of equality. People come to Wyoming for all kinds of reasons, but they stay because they respect these human qualities which are found in our communities, not a mythology.

“I contend that Wyoming can be both the Equality and the Cowboy State, and that by embracing the cowboy spirit of individualism, independence, hard work, love of land, and help thy neighbor we can foster a spirit of equality.”

A cowboy in the very literal sense of the word is someone who cares for cattle. The cowboy profession has always been and remains highly skilled. We who care for livestock have to be veterinarians, mechanics, marketers, farmers, equestrians, and ecologists. Even the cowboy of yore was a highly skilled professional. He was often a loner, liked the isolation of the mountains and desert, liked his horses, liked the cattle, and respected the land. He was the epitome of a free man, no slave was he.

I hire traditional cowboys and cowgirls in the summer to tend the cattle, and they are highly skilled professionals. Plenty of applicants apply for these jobs, but few are skilled enough for my needs. These jobs do not “go begging,” and the reason many livestock herding positions are taken by non-English speaking people is because those herders come from agrarian societies in other countries and (believe it or not) prefer to work in an agrarian position. I would agree that none of us cowboys would classify the business as romantic, as few 7-day-a-week jobs are. I have heard folks from outside the ranching business long for our lifestyle, but few comprehend the commitment and work it entails.

We cowboys and ranchers are individualists (to a fault), hard workers, hard-headed, lovers of the land, and willing to help a neighbor. That is the real cowboy spirit and most stickers (people of all stripes who choose to stay in Wyoming) have that spirit. We are cowboys because we enjoy the livestock we care for and have a sense of place few can appreciate.

The suggestion by Roberts that the miner lasted longer than the cowboy is another myth, because we cowboys still exist. If miners do outlast the cowboy, which is distinctly possible, it will not be because miners “were more successful in organizing and gained greater protections from the government,” but because the economics of mining is better than the economics of ranching.

Read Phil Roberts’ essay “Equality State or Cowboy State

Wander out onto the Laramie Plains, the Black Hills, the Big Horns, the Great Basin, the Winds, the Wyoming range, the Little Colorado Desert, in fact, anywhere in Wyoming, and you will find a cowboy and that cowboy spirit in myriad professions. The Cowboy State and the Equality State are one and the same, and we should strive to uphold the best of both traditions.

— Albert Sommers is a Republican State Representative and cattle rancher who participates in the Green River Drift — a biannual movement of cattle up to and down from summer grazing lands on the Bridger Teton National Forest.

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  1. Albert and I have this discussion when we get a chance. I think the problem comes from generalizing about cowboys (and why not cowgirls, too?). The cowboys I have known never fit the generalization most people have in mind these days. As Albert pointed out, ranch hands work hard, are skilled and care deeply about where they live, but boy are they diverse (often including women). Ranchers are similarly skilled and diverse but they have to possess a number of additional skills (marketing, planning and finance). The problem with “cowboy” is that it has become an icon of a particular kind of belief system that does not represent reality. If we understand that the “cowboy” we often hear about is an inaccurate generalization, we have the chance to avoid the embittered battles it engenders and work to build a genuine Wyoming culture.

  2. May I suggest that the argument over the historical accuracy of the Wyoming cowboy – itinerant loser, or square-jawed paragon of virtue – is basically off point? We need not accept that Sidhartha Guatama really found enlightenment under a specific banyan tree and learned to subsist on a single grain of rice to recognize the comfort and inspiration that 350 million modern adherents find in Buddhist meditation. Self-reliance, honesty, and neighborly generosity are virtues in anyone’s book. If one chooses to gather up those traits, wrap them in shiny paper, add a bow and call the package “the cowboy way”, and to thereby forge constructive guidance for Wall Street finance, or university administration, or corporate marketing, does it really matter if the contents of the package are history, myth, mystique, or religion?

    But as with religion, where it does matter is where the package becomes pernicious rather than inspiring. Unfortunately, the real or imagined nobility of the “cowboy”, and the appropriation of that image by specific political interests, is too often used to justify environmental disregard, as a stage for attacks on government activities that improve our communities, and as the basis for malapportionment of our elected assemblies. I happily celebrate the virtues of agricultural enterprise, and I cherish the “making the desert bloom” zeal of my Mormon ancestors, but rural homelife is not the sole source of moral fiber in our society, ranching is not the backbone of the Wyoming economy, nor is a deep appreciation and reverence for the Wyoming landscape available only through outdoor employment.

    The “cowboy” needs to take his place alongside coal miners and school teachers and shopkeepers and bankers and engineers and all the other fine folks of Wyoming willing to give of themselves for the good of their families and their communities. We need to maintain a healthy balance between embracing the virtues traditionally associated with the “cowboy” and not falling in thrall to our daydreams.

    Merry Christmas

    Bern Hinckley

  3. To call us both the “cowboy” state and the “equality” state is an oxymoron by trying to meld the two words themselves. The piece is almost totally based on the male gender in concept, right down to our iconic emblem on every license plate in the “equality” state…both the horse and the rider are male. Translate that into virtuallly every nook and cranny in the state, Senator…when you have time. And oh, by the way, dig into the history and the true reason the “cowboy” “gave” the “cowgirl” the vote in the first place. Fascinating…

  4. Excellent essay, Albert , thank you….
    I would add that Dewey’s response, like Wyoming, is a bit windy…
    As J.P.S.Brown said, ” They find themselves raising him the cowboy way and figure that’s better than any other way. “

  5. What is most confusing about this is as the “equality” state we sure don’t do a whole lot to promote, defend, or encourage equality amongst our citizens. Why does no one address that issue when defending the very real myth that Wyoming is in any way the “equality” state? Overlooking the truth doesn’t make it go away.

  6. As long as we know which sub-specie of Cowboy were choose to characterize at the point of sale , there is much truth in what both Phil Roberts and Albert Sommers are selling. What kind of Cowboy are we talking about in any particular conversation ? The freespirit range-riding herder and hired hand of the 1880’s during the true Era of the Cowboy has long gone extinct… Lucien Smith’s invention of and Joseph Glidden’s patent of the Devil’s Rope a/k/a/ Barbed Wire pretty much anachronized the Classic Cowboy , with a lot of help from the UP Railroad and the rapidly evolving western settlement by folks not beholden to beef.

    Have lived exclusive in a community that prides itself on extenuating the Cowboy Culture—that being Cody — I have come tor ealize the ” Real Cowboy ” is more threatened or endangered as a species than either Grizzly bears , wolves , or Wolverines,. Their populations are increasing…the cowboy’s is not. Or rather I should say it is further fragmenting.

    Cody displays several subspecie of Cowboy. Let’s start with the Rodeo Cowboy , who more likely than not is a junior college athlete or a young adult adventure sports as home on an bronc for 8 seconds as a internal combustion snowmobile or ATV . The Rodeo Cowboy has likely never gone trail herding or eaten from a chuckwagon and slept in a bedroll. Rdoeo cowboys come in two breeds …roughstock and ropers. I defer on the clowns and barrel racers and goat tiers in the interest of brevity.
    Next comes the Show Cowboy. These are the guys who costume up, whether to engage in a fake gunfight in front of the Irma Hotel for the tourists, or simply become a persona, an alter ego. We live in a hero or superhero popular culture, and there is certainly a place for the Show Cowboy alongside Batman, Thor, and Wonder Woman et al. We have w-a-a-a-a-a-y too many of those in Cody. I defer on the lifesize 2-D cardboard cutout cowboy here.
    Then comes the Hobby Cowboy , who may or may not work for a Hobby Rancher. The hobbyist actually rides horse and moves cattle and all that other stuff, but it, too, is on a spread homesteaded in Dreamworld , or done for tax purposes. But real work gets done.
    Then comes the Dude Wrangler and his sibling the Mountain Trash hunting guide , fishing trip , and outfitter cowboy. I consider these guys to be Real Cowboys , just without the Cow component. In this day and age, the Mountain Cowboy comes closest to the image of the Classic Cowboy for a few months of the year, working out of dude ranches and hunting camps and taking strings of equines thru the backcountry.
    Then there are the Total Fakes. no comment.
    Finally , we come to the vestige of the Real Cowboy , actually working ranches or running a few head of his own . He drives a pickup more than he saddles up, may be seen in the cab of a tractor on occasion, he grows hay , fixes fence, is computer savvy (!?!?!?! a requisite more and more these days ) , and his wife or girlfriend works at the bank or some other clerical office job to support the greater part of both of them. You c an identify the Real Cowboy when you see one in places like airports or Wal-Mart…he’s the guy in the baseball cap and sneakers. The guy next to him in the cowboy hat and boots with the belt buckle big as a dinner plate ? He’s probably a truck driver or something. Bought the buckle in a truck stop.

    As a sidebar to this discussion I bring up the curious case of one James P. Owens, a former Wall Streeter, who made fortune a few years ago peddling his ” Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from The Cowboy Way ” book. Owens put together a sharp marketting campaign to sell the Cowboy Code to the rest of us… it was branding, but not done with a running iron and campfire and did not involve castrating the male bovines, ( although many Wall Streeters deserved as much ). Owens went so far as to lease a rustic ranch outside Santa Barbara CA and have intensive 3-day interpersonal workshops on the Cowboy Way for a mere $ 3500 per person, reservations required. I’ll put this guy in the Total Fake Dude Wrangler Show Cowboy categories simultaneously , but the rest of the media was buying every word out of his mouth like he was spitting gold nuggets there for a year or so.

    To sum up : I’ve got nothing against custom and culture and tradition here. I just place honesty and truth in advertising above those qualities.

    Can I make one simple request ? Can I puh-leeze have the choice of putting something else on my Volvo’s license plate besides a bucking horse and cowboy ? I would really like grizzly Bear or maybe a nice Elk instead. Isn’t it time we gave ole Stubb Farlow and Steamboat a rest ? That has to be the longest 8-second ride in history…

  7. Thank you Mr. Sommers! I travel the whole state a whole bunch and find your description on where Cowboys may be found not only accurate but wonderfully descriptive. I never think it a myth to celebrate the Cowboy and what the Cowboy represents. And yes, that is hard work, determination,skil, dedication and freedom. Hardly a myth academic or otherwise. We are the equality cowboy state.

  8. totally concur-we are both the Cowboy State and the Equality State simultaneously in present time. For the future I am unable to ascertain the rationale of how that would change.