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 mythologyGuest Essay by Albert Sommers — December 6, 2013
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.
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.
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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