I grew up on John Wayne movies and “spaghetti westerns,” where the Hollywood version of the relationship between American cowboys and Native Americans was more than slightly skewed. As a child, the game of “Cowboys and Indians” was a popular one in our neighborhood, with “cowboys” shooting their “guns” at the “Indians” who responded in kind with “bows and arrows.” I always preferred to be among the “Indians.”
Stereotypes ran rampant back in the day.
At a recent Native American Pow Wow at Little Theater on the Farm in Fort Edward, New York, all those old stereotypes were brought to mind as I was visiting with my good friends, Rick and Carolyn Hunt, Abenakis from New Hampshire who perform as The Laughing Couple: Carolyn tells Native American stories from the Eastern woodlands while Rick creates a mural representing the tale.
We were sitting together at their camp on the Pow Wow grounds, with the steady heartbeat of Native American drums in the background, when I noticed a man who’s not dressed in the usual Native regalia. As a matter of fact, he looks like a cowboy. Rick leaves the conversation to get a cup of coffee and to our great surprise, he returns with….the cowboy!
“This is Ernest and he has the smallpox blankets we ordered,” Rick announces as an introduction.
Without missing a beat, Carolyn responds, “Do you also have the tainted beef we requested?”
Now you know why they’re called the “Laughing Couple.”
And thus began our conversation with Ernie Sites, a real-life cowboy who says things like “Pleased to meet you, ma’am” and waxes his moustache and talks like, well, like a cowboy. And he’s the real deal – a “ranch-raised cowboy from Idaho whose voice can calm the orneriest of herds.”
As we got to know him over the weekend, we discovered that he also uses that voice as a talented musician, storyteller and cowboy poet. “I grew up listening to my grandaddy telling us kids stories,” he told us. “Then I’d go out and tell those stories to all my friends. I guess that’s how I got started in this business.”
He now travels throughout the country, performing traditional and original western songs, yodeling, storytelling and trick roping. And he write his own poems.
Stereotypes and historical conflicts were put aside as Rick, Carolyn and Ernie told stories over numerous cups of coffee, finding common ground as performers sharing their respective traditions with their audiences.
We all agreed that this striking juxtaposition of cultures sharing the warmth and light of an evening campfire was a small taste of what world peace might someday look like. A simple conversation, an open heart and contagious laughter.
As a society, there is still much to do on the road towards acceptance, equality and inclusivity. Sometimes it starts in the smallest of ways, and any place is a good place to begin. I have faith we’ll get there.