Dangerous Myth, The American Cowboy


“Sarge,” a stallion from Fish Creek with a long history of interference from man regardless of process, policy and the law. Sarge has lost his freedom, again. This editorial is for you old man.

I’ve come to the conclusion that mythology is really a form of archaeological psychology. Mythology gives you a sense of what a people believes, what they fear.~ George Lucas

Please note this was written in 2015. In march of 2018 we could re-title this piece “Remembering John Ruhs.” Read here about the reaction of one NV politician to John Ruhs being moved.

To read a series on the “public land seizure movement,” with a focus on wild horses, CLICK HERE. As a wild horse advocate these are things you really need to know. 

EDITORIAL, Laura Leigh (This is not one of our range reports, photo essays or analysis of the program. This is a personal editorial on the “state of the West.” Musical selection to accompany this piece if you want the full effect, are italicized.

Hell’s Fury plays loud at the stadium as the crowd holds it’s breath. Busting out of the chute, through the smoke left by fireworks, storms 1,500 lbs of flesh and blood freight train, a PBR bull. A flash of fringe off rodeo chaps reminds you that there is a human being hanging on for dear life to the whirling, bucking behemoth beneath him. The bull changes direction in a gravity defying display of sheer explosive power. As the red, white and blue fringe on his chaps swirls, the rider slams his face against the sledge hammer of a head striking back. The crowd gasps as the rider is launched like a limp sack of flour to the ground. They rise to their feet as rodeo clowns taunt the “killing machine” off the rag doll laying in the dust. The bull, that has done this a dozen times before, heads for the gate as “showtime” for him has ended. Battered and dazed the man in those fancy chaps is helped to his feet and launches his hat into the crowd. The crowd erupts in applause and amazement as “Tuff Enuff blasts through the stadium. Cookie cutter young girls begin to dance to the music as if trying to get the camera man to focus on them and get their picture up onscreen, young children in the crowd dream of being that “strong” someday and the “old timers” feel proud, as American’s we are “Tuff Enuff” to handle any threat.

Yes, I have been to the PBR and many rodeos. As with most things created by man there is good and bad (some of it very, very bad. I addressed both later in life and I believe a reason why there is a targeting right now by certain interests to myself and the organization I founded). In the past, I have shared  a beer and chatter with a couple of those “boys.” I saw them like myself back then, a stuntman in a show. In hindsight I had no idea just how dangerous the myth perpetuated by that display of showmanship really is. Yet with work, we can all grow up.

How many of you cry when you hear the song “God Bless The USA?” I know I do. “I’m glad to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. I wont forget the men who died who gave that right to me. I’d gladly stand up, next to you, and defend her still today. ‘Cause there aint’ no doubt I love this land, God bless the USA.” But I have found that many see the freedoms outlined in our Constitution as a selective club that does not allow everyone in; counterintuitive to any concept of equality and American freedom. We are a country of contradiction.

What is “American identity?” When we look at all of what we think of as American (rugged, resilient, survivors) at the core there is always this “individualism” that is the thread that binds a country built on diversity. Symbolism of that individualism of America include the poor kid that becomes President or a CEO of a wealthy company, military leaders like my personal favorite George S. Patton, pop culture idols that buck trends and cowboys and wild horses.

The romantic image of the cowboy is just that, a romantic image built on the individualism the notion represents. “Don Corleone in the Godfather romanticizes organized crime. That specific romantic notion is much closer to any notion of the American “public lands” rancher than the “Marlboro Man.”

Just as the mob is portrayed as a tight knit society built by taking over local law enforcement, intimidating the community and an internal code of honor, so too has the public land rancher built his world. It has always confused me that internal “policing” is not stronger in the livestock community. Watching headlines on the east coast in the 80’s and 90’s about organized crime, we all could see that those that drew unwanted attention to the “whole,” or jeopardized “business,” were dealt with internally. The livestock industry seems to put those people front and center. That action can only be seen as “giving the village idiot a gun” and where the parallel with Mario Puzo’s “Godfather” seems to end. All of the livestock industry is being painted with the actions of public land ranching as a mythos is drawn into the light of public scrutiny.

Public land ranching has a messy and bloody history. We are not talking about a history of nobility in wars fought for America’s freedom (in no way am I discounting the individuals that served in our military efforts as a nation. My own family is made up of individuals that served in multiple branches of the armed forces and law enforcement. I am holding service as the “gold standard” of that ethic. ). I am discussing the evolution of the “industry” of profiting off of public land grazing.

Ranchers killed homesteaders they saw as invaders that limited their ability to reap a profit through essentially unlimited access to grass on public land. In one such instance all it took was a mere accusation of “rustling” and the “offenders” were hung. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/homesteaders-murdered-by-wyoming-ranchers

Lincoln County war over dry goods and cattle in New Mexico: http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.war.024

Cattlemen and sheepherders had multiple bloody conflicts over grazing. This link is about the conflict in Oregon. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheepshooters%27_War Yet there was conflict between cows and sheep all over the West. http://www.jcs-group.com/oldwest/wars/sheepmen.html

Cattlemen killed cattlemen too. Wars between “free grazers,” that drove herds across the landscape but did not own land, and those that owned ranches were intense. A film called “Open Range,” starring Kevin Costner, romanticized this chapter in history. Texas “fence cutters war” https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/auf01 In Wyoming there was a huge orchestrated “war” in Johnson county where cattlebarons went after anyone that usurped their ability to literally “rule the land.” http://www.wyohistory.org/essays/johnson-county-war Numerous accounts of wars over grazing, water and “big guy vs little guy” exist in the pages of history.

One of the greatest “legends of the West” was not a cowboy. A lawman named Wyatt Earp actually took on “the cowboy” in Tombstone Arizona. The “shoot out at the OK corral” has become immortalized in American mythos through books and multiple big screen extravaganzas. Although a mix of fact and fiction, the story of the OK corral is a very real part of the identity of western culture.

Reality and romanticism mix and meld and create the impression the world has of the American West.

Technology advances, yet western “individualists” are still the ones with their fingers on the “trigger.” In todays “range war” we see public relations firms, high powered attorneys and “million dollar non profits” (on all sides of this conflict). We see underfunded “range rats” sending information to environmental groups as they face the real world risks of being unwelcome in this territory (WHE is one of these). We see a government floundering as it can not keep pace with the technological terrain and seemingly can not decide on it’s own identity in the struggle. Yet the human element is the same, chest beating and intimidation rule the day.

We have done several articles on the Grass March” over the last 18 months. Is this an attempt to create a rebirth of the “sage brush rebellion,” a push begun in the Nevada Legislature in the 1970’s, to take over “public” federal land? Some say the sage brush rebellion never ended and the resolutions in the state legislature passed in those days have simply run the ongoing agenda.(Articles on the Grass March http://wildhorseeducation.org/?s=grass+march )

(In 2014 Rep. Raul Grijalva of the House Natural Resources Committee called for an investigation into the activities of ALEC. http://www.prwatch.org/news/2014/04/12451/congressman-grijalva-requests-investigation-alecs-role-nv-range-fight)

Joining the Grass March there has been a massive public relations campaign that has at it’s heart the resumption of horse slaughter in the US (part of the agenda). No matter how hard they try they can not paint a kill buyer or slaughterhouse with any brush that the vast majority of American’s would accept. American’s do not eat their horses (kinda goes against our identification with the romantic notion of the cowboy). However using the “cowboy mythos” and portraying the public lands rancher as a poor soul caught by the “big bad government” trying to save wild horses from starvation (killing them and eating them would be best) is an easier sales pitch to launch to a public that fails to read the fine print. (multiple citations on public lands grazing can be found here: http://wildhorseeducation.org/2014/02/14/rangeland-under-fire-under-fire-editorial/)

The players are all well known to those of us on the ground. We have local politicians that step up for the livestock community but fail to even return an email from anyone else. Of course livestock producers that have been trying to deny water to wild horses in the state of Nevada for a decade and banded together in legal action to remove wild horses (and even destroy them) throughout the state fill the ranks. One of those “million dollar non profits,” funded by big oil, has hired a frontman that has been pushing horse slaughter for a decade, has jumped in and is now trying to take center stage.

In 2015 a man came to sit at the helm of the Nevada State Office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), John Ruhs. Sent into this position in a tense time as the Grass March once again geared up, he came (most likely) with “orders” from Director Neil Kornze. Kornze is an “Elko boy” from the heart of a deeply rooted Nevada ranching community.

The first time I met Ruhs he was wearing a slate grey vest with big embossed silver buttons over his pressed white western shirt. The man sports facial hair that rivals that of Wyatt Earp. My impression was that he was playing a few cards very close to his chest and I would have to see if he actually held a good hand or was “all bluff.”

Ruhs is no Earp.  We watched an awful lot of genuflecting to one interest, the cowboy. We have watched as other interests don’t even get a voice in process.   (Since we met we have tried  to work on rectifying the mistakes created by fringe drama of “purple tights.” What happens next? Cards will be played and we will see exactly what is held in that hand and if it is recognized that everyone at the table has ante up, including wild horses).

In most instances over the last few years there appeared to be a growing “respect” for my efforts on the range. I won landmark rulings on the First Amendment (who can argue with that?). I won decisions against inappropriate handling of wild horses because I was there, in the scorching heat and biter cold. I was on the range during roundups and beyond. One article even had state legislator and rancher Pete Goicoechea echoing that mistreatment of wild horses was not ok (how could he say otherwise in print, even though there were local rumors old Pete still engaged in mustanging?). At meetings hats would be tipped in a recognition I was in the room and occasionally, a door would even be held open for me. I was not like many of the other “advocates” in the room, I was “on the ground” and “in the trenches,” and the ranchers knew it and appeared to respect at least that much. Or at least they did not see me as an “outsider.”

But this year under John Ruhs, and the big push from the “Grass March” PR machine Protect the Harvest, all that has changed. Joining in with a newly transplanted permittee from California, that kept running in trespass, we had a standoff that played like an old western movie.  We are now at the “when push comes to shove” moment. I now get death threats with my morning coffee.

The idea that we all have a right to participate in public land policy, and an obligation to abide by the rules set out for that participation, are also a myth. Efforts are increasing to silence any voice that paints a contrary picture to their agenda (control of federal land, ability to degrade public land as they choose, the slaughter of wild horses). Events at Fish Creek have clearly shown that any recognition of the boundaries of lawful participation by all parties is a “broken promise.” http://wildhorseeducation.org/?s=fish+creek

There is no Wyatt Earp out in the West upholding the law. The actions of our “cowboys,” currently well funded by big interests with deep pockets, resemble those of a frat house party out of control. Smoke, mirrors, screaming and spewing about as much factual and relevant content as WWE’s “Friday Night SmackDown,” our “American Cowboy” is now reduced to “wearing purple tights” in the center ring of a media circus.

If our mythos of the American West held true, the “white hats” would ride into town with shiny badges. Order would be restored in the streets and the public could again fall asleep, safely, in the Little House on the Prairie. The death threats would stop and law would be restored.

“I’m glad to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. I wont forget the men who died who gave that right to me. I’d gladly stand up, next to you, and defend her still today. ‘Cause there aint’ no doubt I love this land, God bless the USA.”

I weep, not simply for the truth of those words, for the shattered myths of my youth.

However I am not one that “lets go” easy. I’m gonna make that bell. If there is no Wyatt Earp on the horizon maybe there are other mythos of the “individualist” we can look to that are more in line with the current technological landscape? I think there is a new Avengers movie from the guys at Marvel coming, that rag tag crew of mismatched superheroes? Or maybe it’s time for a trip to “Gotham city” to find the “Bat Signal” to draw Batman from his cave?

I’m not giving up yet.

“God bless the USA.”

(Laura Leigh is a freelance animator, photojournalist, journalist that founded Wild Horse Education after witnessing, first hand, the atrocities faced by wild horses in modern day America.)

If you want to follow up on the continuing saga of trying to “break ground” in BLM districts to gain sustainable management, not management run by fear, myth, and drama storms created by little minds (and then blamed on the person that stood in the facts) READ HERE: All The Pretty Horses Must Die.  (2017)