Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Romanticizing Cowboys and Indians

Introduction

"If I wished to know what went into the patterns of the basket makers, I gathered willows in the moon of white butterflies and fern stems when these were the ripest. I soaked the fibers in running water turning them as the light turned, and did my ineffectual best to sit on the ground scraping them flat with an obsidian blade, holding the fibers between my toes. . . I felt myself caught up in the collective mind, carried with it toward states of super-consciousness that escape the exactitudes of the ethnologist as the life of the flower escapes between the pressed pages of the herbalist."
Mary Austin, The American Rhythm (1921)
"There is always a certain slightly devilish resistance in the American landscape, and a certain slight resistance in the white man's heart. . . The American landscape has never been at one with the white man. Never."
D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923)
"Look upon the Indian world as a human world; then let him see to it that human rights be accorded to the Indian. And this for the purpose of retaining for his own order of society a measure of humanity."
Luther Standing Bear, My People the Sioux (1928)

After the Battle of Little Big Horn, the Trail of Tears, the surrender of Geronimo, and the near extermination of the American Indian population in the nineteenth century, many novelists, poets, anthropologists, historians, and ethnologists began to "rediscover" the First Americans. The increased interest in native culture was partially a reaction to the increasingly fragmented nature of modern society and a desire for a more direct and holistic life, echoing the modernist search for the heroic origins of contemporary mankind.

To those seeking this balanced, integrated way of life, the Indian, real or imagined, factual or romantic, was naturally attractive. The increasing use of Native American religion as poetic text was ironically both reverential and wrongheaded. The basic oral nature of American Indian myth, music, and song did not readily translate into Western poetic forms and served a different purpose altogether in its culture. Nevertheless, the generally spiritual nature of the attempts to translate Indian materials was a first step in recognition of the place of the Native Americans in American life.

The cowboy, one of the most romanticized figures in American history, provided the Twenties with another archetype. The vogue for things western created a huge market for novels, stories, paintings, watercolors, and bronzes. During the decade, writing about the West developed a literary self-awareness in addition to the usual concern for authentic details and an adventurous plot. The skill and independence needed for the cowboy's job was peculiarly attractive to Americans of all sorts, and especially captivating to writers and moviemakers.

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Photograph of Albert Einstein posing with a group of Hopi Indians
Photograph of Albert Einstein posing with a group of Hopi Indians
Eugene O. Goldbeck

Artists and writers were not the only intellectuals who "played Indian." Photographer Eugene O. Goldbeck captured Albert Einstein posing with a group of Hopis in 1922.

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