Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Old West & Wal-Mart: My trip through Wyoming

Early this morning, I started my tour of Wyoming in South Dakota, with a trip to Deadwood's famous Boot Hill. “Over there is Wild Bill Hickok’s grave," I was told, "and that’s Calamity Jane’s grave right next to it." According to her original tombstone, Calamity Jane died from ‘bad alcohol’ – but that was just a polite way of saying that she was a drunk.

Next stop? Devils Tower, a sacred Lakota Sioux monument up near Sundance. I walked around the base of the tower, feeling all holy – but that feeling didn’t last very long. It never does.

Next came the Big Horn mountains. I was actually there in the Big Horns. With Custer and them. How historic is that!

According to Gary Cooper, in a really good documentary called “The Real West” (you can get it at REI), the entire saga of the Old West only lasted around 40 years. This famous era started right after the civil war between the Union and the Confederacy ended, when apparently the U.S. Army was looking around for something else to do and so moved west to fight another, even larger civil war – between Native-Americans and European-Americans.

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around what happened out here during this second civil war -- and this is hard to do because the conflict between those who originally lived in this area and those who came pouring in from outside was so vast. The settlers just kept on coming. And the Indians tried to stop them but there were just too many to stop and the newbees didn’t want to share.

Perhaps it would help me to understand this conflict from a modern perspective if I risked getting yelled at by making a comparison between native Palestinians and the unstoppable flood of Zionist settlers from all over Europe that has recently poured into the land of Saladin.

You try to defend your homeland but you can’t.

But Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse really gave it a shot!

So. Who was I cheering for during the glory days of the Old West? The Native-American underdogs or the European-derived settlers? I always root for the underdogs.

And just think of what America would be like today if cowboys and settlers had never arrived in the Old West. Probably not so bad. Native-Americans used to have a pretty good way of life going on here in the Big Horns. They honored the earth. We could use a little bit more of that now.

But instead of that alternative reality, we now have a gigantic new Wal-Mart in Sheridan, Wyoming – with four or five huge aisles alone devoted purely to candy and chips. To the winner goes the spoils.

PS: All this Indian Country talk has got me all identifying with my Native-American great-grandmother, Mary Ballard. Perhaps it’s because of her that I identify more with Crazy Horse than I do with all those 250-pound shoppers at Wal-Mart.

PPS: I wasn’t going to mention the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody that I also visited today, but it turned out to be so completely interesting that I really should say a few words. They had lots of Remingtons there – both the painted kind and the weapons. The museum's weapons section was fascinating.

Then I tried really hard to organize a ride out to Heart Mountain, the World War II Japanese internment camp, yet another moment in American history that I am not proud of. Heart Mountain is only 15 miles outside of Cody -- but everything I tried seemed to fall through. “Most of the cabins there are gone now,” said one old-timer here, “but you can still see the smokestacks and there's been some recent attempts at restoration. However, you can see several of the old cabins around town, that people are now using for tool sheds.” Tool sheds? They had American citizens living in jails the size of tool sheds -- for four years?

Never again.