John Wayne owned a couple of ranches but he was hardly a cowboy. Not a “real” one anyway, if you consider what reality is supposed to be. Though if a cowboy stereotype exists, who fits it and what are the qualifications and values?
“John Wayne” was a nom de guerre, an invention, you might say, of Hollywood. Marion Morrison (John Wayne’s real name) created a look, manly strut and tough-guy cowboy drawl for effect. Raised in southern California, he adopted the stage name because his birth name didn’t sound American enough.
“The Duke,” a cognomen inspired by Morrison’s boyhood dog, played many memorable roles as fictional cowboys—dramatic parts that some 21st century, history-challenged cowboys apparently believe were real.
They hold up John Wayne as being a cultural hero but what kind of culture worships a myth?
Likable, popular, and magnetic on film, Wayne the actor often is held up as the epitome of a heroic Westerner, and a human personification of the cowboy code.
In real life, according to biographers, Wayne wore a toupee, was a philanderer, suffered from alcoholism, was emotionally distant from his children, had a lung removed due to chain smoking several packs a day, could be kind, mean and moody, was a self-admitted white supremacist.
In an interview with Playboy magazine, he was asked about the undignified portrayals of Native Americans in his movies and if native people should have any legitimate complaints for how they’ve been treated.
“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking,” Wayne said. “Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
Wayne also defended former President Richard Nixon and the rationale for the Vietnam War, and supported anti-communist witch hunts carried out by Joseph McCarthy in the U.S. Senate and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Wayne watched as some associates in the film industry became blacklisted, their lives destroyed, often wrongly accused of being dangerous enemies of the state. Recently, Wayne’s daughter, Aissa, endorsed Donald Trump for president.
While Wayne has an airport named after him in California, a proposal in 2016 to establish “John Wayne Day” in the state was scrapped because of his racist views.
With some “cowboys,” real or pretend, it can be difficult distinguishing where reality and horse pucky begins or ends. Some claim that being a cowboy or identifying as one enhances credibility.
I’m not saying it does or doesn’t but I’ve seen plenty of assertions made by cowboys disintegrate when subjected to fact checking.
Consider two contradictory ruminations of “cowboy common sense” aimed at elk management in Yellowstone National Park.
In the late 1980s, there were an estimated 19,000 elk inhabiting Yellowstone’s Northern Range. Roughly a decade later, the number of wapiti had decreased by a little more than half.
Today, state and federal wildlife biologists estimate the total population of Yellowstone’s Northern Range wapiti herds to be somewhere between 4,500 and 6,000.
Beginning with the winter of 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and lobos took advantage of abundant prey, their own numbers rising and subsequently falling. After all, it had been the absence of wolves that partially caused elk numbers to unnaturally swell.
Prior to wolf restoration, the state of Montana already had been taking aggressive action to knock the size of those elk herds down as animals moved out of the park during the winter.
Between liberal hunting policies allowing hunters to buy multiple tags, and late season hunts targeting pregnant cow elk—thus indiscriminately removing healthy females of reproductive age from the gene pool—numbers fell fast.
Combined, wolves, years of drought, a couple of hard winters, rising numbers of grizzlies, and human harvest took their toll. Today, elk numbers are, for the most part, holding steady.
Drawing simplistic conclusions, some cowboys and outfitters loudly portrayed wolf reintroduction as “the greatest ecological disaster in the history of the world.”
They predicted no wildlife would be left in Yellowstone and that “the devastation” would spread across the West.
Enter next Bob Ross, champion of ranchers and cowboys and a now-retired range specialist with the Soil Conservation Service in Montana. For many years prior to wolf reintroduction, Mr. Ross declared Yellowstone’s Northern Range was badly overgrazed by elk. Way too many, he said.
When 19,000 elk roamed, he relentlessly criticized Yellowstone and the state for allowing the herds to grow far too large, to the point that the Northern Range, he stated, “deteriorated to a devastated condition.”
Ross has long believed that wildlife should be husbanded the same way livestock are. In 2014, after some cowboys claimed wolves had destroyed Yellowstone’s Northern Elk herds, Ross claimed there were still too many wapiti and bison.
Ask Yellowstone scientists and they acknowledge some bison impacts have occurred because the animals have been cul-de-saced, unable to move freely in and out of the park. That’s a result of Montana’s much-maligned policy of lethal intolerance for bison coming into the state, based upon dubious theories of possible brucellosis transmission to private cattle herds promoted by cowboy-hatted livestock interests.
I know plenty of good cowboys—real ones, thoughtful ones, honest, decent, peaceful, patriotic and devoted to making America better by bringing it together. Unfortunately, I’ve met other kinds of cowboys who are less than virtuous.
At every turn, some of the radical ones love to hold forth orating how native wildlife on federal public lands should be managed, premised on how they’ve made the West safer for non-native livestock to roam. They also espouse handing federal lands over to the states and selling state lands to private individuals.
Are all cowboys equal? Are they a monolith? Do they all belong to the same political party and hold identical beliefs? Cliven Bundy and his followers call themselves cowboys and they identify with John Wayne.
Donald Trump seems to believe John Wayne was real.
How would The Duke be managing public animals in America’s first national park? If he treated wildlife the same way he condescendingly viewed Native Americans, well, we’ve all seen that movie before.
Todd Wilkinson’s New West column appears here every week. He is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Grizzly 399 featuring 150 photographs by noted American nature photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen and only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly. He also is author of a profile on Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine now on newsstands.
Editor’s note: Wilkinson’s “New West” column runs online each Friday on explorebigsky.com, and bimonthly in the Explore Big Sky newspaper.