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An illustration of different Western images in pop culture.
From Lil Nas X, "Nomadland" and "The Harder They Fall," the West is an idea that continually gets re-interpreted and added onto. | Henry Cram / KCET

From Lil Nas X to 'Nomadland': How the American West is Being Re-Imagined

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By many accounts, artists and storytellers have recently upended the dusty old American West with new tales. The new film "The Harder They Fall" creates a classic outlaw story with a virtually all-Black cast. In "Cry Macho," nonagenarian Clint Eastwood seems to question his past persona on a cowboy's odyssey into Mexico. Last year, "Cowboys" told the story of a transgender boy and his dad on the lam in Montana; "Yellow Rose" tuned up an undocumented Filipina American singing cowgirl in Texas; and "Concrete Cowboy" dramatized African American horse culture in Philadelphia. The stalwart indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt also released "First Cow" last year, one in a long line of her films set in the West. And with "Nomadland," Chloé Zhao smuggled a stunning Western (depending on how you define "Western") to the top of the Best Picture Oscar field for only the fourth (or fifth or sixth or seventh — again, depending on how you define "Western") time in history.

On TV, "Westworld" undermines the frontier myth with robots; "Warrior" and now a reboot of "Kung Fu" center Chinese American martial arts narratives; and after a century of Hollywood caricatures, redface and what amounts to romances of genocide in Westerns onscreen, Native American creators have debuted two witty shows on major networks, "Rutherford Falls" and "Reservation Dogs." In recent literary fiction, Tom Lin details a 19th-century Chinese American's quest for vengeance in "The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu," C. Pam Zhang centers Chinese American children in gold rush California in "How Much of These Hills Is Gold"; Hernan Diaz conjures a Swedish boy on the American frontier in "In the Distance"; and Tommy Orange (Cheyenne/Arapaho) evokes an ensemble of Native Americans in contemporary Oakland in "There There." Linda Sue Park's children's pioneer novel "Prairie Lotus" centers a sun-bonneted half-Chinese, half-Anglo girl in 1880s Dakota Territory. In music, Lil Nas X, Orville Peck, Megan Thee Stallion and other bright young stars decompose and recompose Western themes. This doesn't account for the millions of creations on social media, where, for example, the images of Black Lives Matter protesters on horseback in Los Angeles, Houston and elsewhere stood out among many powerful images in summer 2020.

Learn how the West can be so much more complex than we first imagine on "Artbound."
Imagined Wests

All this pushes against what has been canonized as the West, perhaps the single most influential cultural "myth and symbol" of the United States. Here is former president Donald Trump's handy invocation of a very incomplete yet prevalent version of the region in his 2020 State of the Union speech:

This is the country where children learn names like Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett and Annie Oakley. This is the place where the pilgrims landed at Plymouth and where Texas patriots made their last stand at the Alamo — the beautiful, beautiful Alamo. The American nation was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest and most determined men and women ever to walk on the face of the Earth. Our ancestors braved the unknown; tamed the wilderness; settled the Wild West … And, ladies and gentlemen, our ancestors built the most exceptional republic ever to exist in all of human history, and we are making it greater than ever before. This is our glorious and magnificent inheritance. We are Americans. We are pioneers. We are the pathfinders. We settled the New World, we built the modern world and we changed history forever.
Donald Trump, 2020 State of the Union

And we continually rediscover John Wayne's 1971 Playboy interview, in which the singular icon of the "golden age" Western affirmed his support for "white supremacy" over African Americans a decade after the Freedom Rides and sit-ins and then defended the seizure of Indigenous land: "There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves." (Note especially his opposition of "people" and "Indians.") It's not a stretch to trace the origin of this Western genre back to 1876, when William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, on summer vacation from playing himself on stage back east, killed the Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hair in a trumped-up skirmish — Cody wearing his silk show costume — to claim a "first scalp for Custer" after the U.S. Seventh Cavalry's defeat at Little Bighorn. Chillingly, Cody replayed this scene using Yellow Hair's actual scalp, for decades afterward.

A mural painting depicts a collage of American West imagery, from cowboys and Native Americans to men on horseback and nods to Western films.
A segment of the 138-foot mural "Spirits of the West" at the Autry Museum of the American West. | Dennis Nishi

A storytelling genre that runs through those few data points reads as fundamentally exclusionary, colonial and racist. The Earp-Cody-Wayne line may also be the clearest mainstream in the mythology of the American West. Trump was the most powerful man in the world when he articulated his vision. Cody, Oakley, Earp and Wayne stand among the most identifiable, adamantine busts in the Western pantheon. They are also some of the figures featured in the "Spirits of the West" mural at the Autry Museum, where I work, which forms the center of the "Imagined Wests" episode of "Artbound." The mural dominates three walls of a large event space at the heart of the museum, known as Heritage Court. I often think of it as a 138-foot articulation of all the ideas of the West so many of us carry in our heads without remembering where we actually learned that Stetsons, Sitting Bull, longhorns, Monument Valley and the rest make up the firmament of Western clip art.

But what if we put up scaffolding in our minds and painted a different mural? What if we placed Lil Nas X and all the other characters of today's Westerns as the most recent faces in the chronology of that mural, in place of (a younger) Clint Eastwood?
Josh Garrett-Davis, Gamble Associate Curator of Western History, Popular Culture, and Firearms at the Autry Museum of the American West

But what if we put up scaffolding in our minds and painted a different mural? What if we placed Lil Nas X and all the other characters of today's Westerns as the most recent faces in the chronology of that mural, in place of (a younger) Clint Eastwood? What if we placed Hanna Edmunds, the girl in "Prairie Lotus," in place of the blonde girl at the center? We could say these figures are the mainstream now. Where would that mural lead backward to?

Well, it wasn't all that long ago that other artists upended the West. There are the self-referential Westerns Quentin Tarantino has made, starring actors playing actors, multiracial casts and Uma Thurman with a samurai sword. The Coen brothers have played hard in the genre too, remaking classic novels and films and scoring the epic introduction of 'The Dude' in his bathrobe with "The Tumbling Tumbleweeds." At the end of the millennium, "Wild Wild West" spun a steampunk frontier with Will Smith at its center, while "Smoke Signals" set real Native people both behind the camera and onscreen, and "Selena" evoked the modern Texas-Mexico borderlands with ten-gallon hats on both sides of the Rio Grande. Robert Rodriguez also set his "Mexico Trilogy" tales of vengeance in the modern-day borderlands. "Toy Story" and "Firefly" teamed cowboys and cowgirls with space travelers. In the early 1990s, around the time Thelma and Louise jumped the cliff, Nancy Kelly's "Thousand Pieces of Gold" retold the story of Polly Bemis, a nineteenth-century Chinese American Idahoan; Mario Van Peebles nailed the hip-hop West in "Posse"; and a largely forgotten series of gay romance novels by Cap Iversen starred a gunslinger named Dakota Taylor. In the 1980s, Donna Deitch's "Desert Hearts" produced a lesbian West and the International Gay Rodeo Association galloped around the region. "Powwow Highway" and "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" told untold Western stories, about the time the hardcore punk band MDC was thrashing through "John Wayne Was a Nazi."

A poster advertises a rodeo that took place in 1990. The poster reads, "Rodeo 1990, Los Angeles; March 30-April 1." The poster also reveals the rodeo's location, the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, Burbank California." The dominating image on the poster is a man on a bull.
1/3 A 1990 poster for the Los Angeles Rodeo, a three-day event, organized by the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association. The rodeo would took place at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, located at the edge of Griffith Park. | IGRA Institutional Archives, Autry Museum of the American West
A 1928 movie poster advertises the film, "Ramona" which is written across the bottom of the poster. Just above the film title reads "Dolores del Rio," the star of the film. The dominant imagery is a woman in a frilled pink skirt with her toe pointed, a hand on her waist, and her other hand delicately in the air. She looks over her shoulder at a man playing a guitar, gazing at her.
2/3 A movie poster for "Ramona" (1928), starring Dolores del Rio and Warner Baxter and directed by Edwin Carewe. | Autry Museum of the American West
An old cover to an 1882 novel titled, "The Huge Hunter; or The Steam Man of the Prairies." Across the top of the cover is a stylized header that reads, "Beadle's Half Dime Library." The image on the front cover depicts a steam-powered robot man pulling a carriage behind him where four passengers sit atop.
3/3 The cover for the 1882 sci-fi Western dime novel, "The Steam Man of the Prairies," also called "The Huge Hunter," about a steam-powered robot who pulled travelers across the plains. | Autry Museum of the American West

We can rewind further to the 1970s, 1960s, 1950s and beyond. Blaxploitation, outlaw country, revisionist Westerns, rhinestone cowfolk, spoofs like "Blazing Saddles." Civil rights Westerns, "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter" and the independent New Mexico labor film "The Salt of the Earth." In the early days of cinema (beginning in 1919), one of the first successful Black directors, Oscar Micheaux, homesteaded in South Dakota and made several movies based on the experience. Harlem Renaissance actress Anita Bush appeared in two Westerns with Oklahoma rodeo champion Bill Pickett. Lillian St. Cyr (Winnebago/Ho-chunk) starred in Cecil B. DeMille's first feature and Edwin Carewe (Chickasaw) pulled Mexican actress Dolores del Rio into her first Hollywood role as the half-Native, half-European heroine Ramona. Check this out: Buffalo Bill hung out with Bram Stoker in London in 1887. A decade later, Stoker's classic novel "Dracula" included a Texas cowboy character, Quincey Morris, as one of its main characters. Wild West shows included not only cowboys, scouts and American Indians but also Eastern European trick riders, charros, acrobats like George Hamid and other surprising performers. Even earlier, dime novels sensationalized Wests we might not expect, including a tale of a fair-minded African American outlaw, Ebony Dan, and the original sci-fi Western, "The Steam Man of the Prairies," also called "The Huge Hunter," about a steam-powered robot pulling travelers across the Plains.

A rough sketch of the "Spirits of the West" mural at the Autry Museum is marked on a white background with black ink. Below the sketch are seven columns, each head with a different word: discovery, opportunity, conquest, community, cowboy, romance, imagination. Below each of the heads are bullet points and ideation for each theme.
A 1987 sketch and theme ideation for the "Spirits of the West" mural by the late Guy Deel at the Autry Museum of the American West. | Institutional Archives, Autry Museum of the American West

My point is that the recent innovations aren't totally novel, and at some point enough exceptions, upheavals, inversions and unexpected stories add up to a tradition of their own. What if we called that tradition the heart of the West? It's multi-ethnic and sometimes queer, and it includes vampires and robots, comedy and tragedy. Around the world, this has taken a wagonload of forms, from the Polish pro-democracy Solidarity movement adopting Gary Cooper as a mascot for the June 4, 1989, elections to youth gangs in 1950s Kinshasa resisting Belgian colonial authority while dressing as cowboys and calling themselves "Bills" after Buffalo Bill. The new film "The Harder They Fall," written and directed by the British filmmaker Jeymes Samuel, takes its name from the Jamaican classic "The Harder They Come," which itself begins with its outlaw hero watching the Italian Western "Django." And it calls to mind the many allusions to the West in ska and reggae music, most famously in Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Buffalo Soldier." This is a fictional, imagined West that many have found to be a rich terrain for telling stories of empires and sovereignty, cross-cultural violence and understanding.

Now imagine yourself going back in time and painting the "history" part of the mural (you know, history — the times before they had movies, records and comic books). What if back then there were fantastic machines and people speaking hundreds of languages, singing funny songs, struggling with droughts, killing and having sex with each other, trading novelty goods from far away? Actually, there were. For centuries. Even before 1492. In "Artbound," my colleague archaeologist Karimah Richardson describes Native people navigating the West Coast thousands of years ago, using the cutting-edge technology of crescent points to make their living. The complicated West got even more complicated as colonization began. Another colleague, Autry Vice President Joe Horse Capture (A'aninin) describes 19th-century Plains men wearing robes as "resumes" that broadcast their accomplishments, having long adapted horses and guns into their tool kits and into Native value systems; chief curator Carolyn Brucken points out that a mountain man's 1830s fringed buckskin jacket follows the lines of a frock coat in a Jane Austen novel; and history curator Tyree Boyd-Pates reminds us that a quarter of 19th-century cowboys were Black.

A hand wearing a black disposable glove holds a vintage "Lobo" comic. The cover has the title, "Lobo" across the top. A cowboy defends himself with an axe against a villainous character.
1/4 A cover of "Lobo," a fictional Western comic book featuring the first Black comic book hero to headline their own series. "Lobo" is also a nod to the history of Black cowboys, which made up a quarter of cowboys in the 19th century. | Still from "Artbound" Season 12 Episode 5, "Imagined Wests"
A painting depicts an 1830s mountain man wearing a fringed buckskin jacket. The man is sitting atop a white horse and is carrying a large, smoking gun. A wide-brimmed hat sits on his head and a red scarf/bandana is tied around his neck.
2/4 A painting depicts an 1830s mountain man wearing a fringed buckskin jacket, which, in an "Artbound" episode, Autry Museum of the West chief curator Carolyn Brucken points out follows the lines of a frock coat in a Jane Austen novel. | Still from "Artbound" Season 12 Episode 5, "Imagined Wests."
A collage of two photos, side-by-side. The photo on the left is a flat lay of crescent-shaped stone tools, the size of an arrowhead. The crescents are laid neatly atop a black background. The photo on the right displays an open palm holding one of the crescent points.
3/4 Archaeologist Karimah Richardson discusses crescent points, cutting-edge technology Native people in the West Coast used for waterfowl hunting thousands of years ago. | Still from "Artbound" Season 12 Episode 5, "Imagined Wests"
A still from "Artbound" episode "Imagined Wests" reveals an 19th century robe laid flat on a surface. The material is a light beige color and features faded illustrations of horses.
4/4 A 19th century Plainsmen robe, which were worn as "resumes" that broadcasted the wearer's accomplishments. | Still from "Artbound" Season 12 Episode 5, "Imagined Wests."

In fact, even the mainstream West was always more complicated than Buffalo Bill's worst deeds, John Wayne's worst words, and Donald Trump's "pathfinders" and strangely Indian-free "wilderness." Despite the haloed, elevated, blond Anglo family at the center of the Autry's mural, the "Spirits of the West" sought to capture a more complex view of the region. A preliminary sketch of the mural specifies, "Represent all ethnic groups" and emphasizes the Spirit of Community, for example, showing "interrelationships within families [and] social groups." The final mural features Black cowboys Bill Pickett and Nat Love, the latter being the namesake of Jonathan Majors's character in "The Harder They Fall." And there is Annie Oakley, a pioneer in women's sports and performance. Not far from her stands Helen Hunt Jackson with her protest novel "Ramona," the source text of the Carewe/Del Rio film. And Gary Cooper in "High Noon," allegorically standing up to the Hollywood blacklist championed by John Wayne, takes up more room than Wayne, who appears diminished and in mustachioed disguise in his role in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." The anonymous Latina and Chinese worker in the mural's central cast are stereotypes, but they probably wouldn't have featured at all in a comparable Western history mural painted even a few years before 1988. They, and the several Native people in the mural, at least open the door to conversations about the ways the West is part of Latin America, the Pacific World and, first of all, Indian Country.

A painting of Black cowboy Nat Love stands at the center of a close-up of the "Spirits of the West" mural. Love is wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and a red button-up shirt. A read handkerchief is tied around his neck and he's wearing a fun bolster around his waist. Wrapped around one hand is a lasso.
1/5 Cowboy Nat Love, center, who would later become the namesake of Jonathan Majors’ character in the 2021 film "The Harder They Fall." | Dennis Nishi
A painting of a white woman in an late-1800s blue American dress stands in the middle of a close-up of the "Spirits of the West" mural. The woman is Helen Hunt Jackson and she's holding her 1884 novel,  "Ramona" which is scrawled across the book's front cover. Jackson is looking off to the side stands amongst other prominent figures and imagery of the American West.
2/5 American writer and poet Helen Hunt Jackson, center, stands clutching her protest novel "Ramona," an 1884 novel that portrays the life of a mixed-race Scottish-Native American orphan who suffers racial discrimination and hardship. Jackson was an activist on behalf of improved treatment of Native Americans in the late 1800s. "Ramona" would later be adapted into a 1928 film of the same name, starring Mexican actress Dolores del Rio. | Dennis Nishi
A painting of Black cowboy and rodeo champion Bill Pickett stands on the left of a close-up of the "Spirits of the West" mural. Pickett is wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, a navy blue vest, a long white sleeve button-up and a gold and blue handkerchief around his neck.
3/5 Oklahoma rodeo champion Bill Pickett, left, in the "Spirits of the West" mural at the Autry Museum of the American West. | Dennis Nishi
A painting of a white man with gray hair stands on the left of a close-up of the "Spirits of the West" mural at the Autry Museum of the American West. To his right is a white woman wearing an 1800s-style bonnet over her head.
4/5 Gary Cooper, left, as he appeared in the 1952 Western film "High Noon" that allegorically stood up to the Hollywood blacklist championed by John Wayne. | Dennis Nishi
A painting of Annie Oakley in a close-up of the "Spirits of the West" mural. Oakley is wearing a wide-brimmed hat and has long, dark brown hair that flows behind her. She's wearing a collared blue top with a white collar and beige fringe. A gold star broach is pinned in the middle.
5/5 A painting of Annie Oakley, a pioneer in women’s sports and performance, in the "Spirits of the West" mural at the Autry Museum of the American West. | Dennis Nishi

Today, storytellers and storytelling industries are reevaluating which stories and which characters they place at the center of histories, legends, fictions and works of art. The West, as a national and international place for stories, stands as a crucial terrain for these reevaluations. Which figures will star in future presidents' State of the Union speeches? Which novels and comics will people read on the bus, and which movies will win Best Picture? As our current cultural debates suggest, the answers to these questions matter. Yet they are not as simple as "old" and "new." At times, the West of "Reservation Dogs" and "Nomadland" intersects with the West we have learned to expect, as when Fern (Frances McDormand), Zhao's nomadic protagonist, stands in the doorway of her old home in a direct allusion to John Wayne's iconic silhouette in "The Searchers." In fact, fresh stories can become richer by referencing, playing off or inverting older stories. The continual profusion of imaginative new Westerns, and the stubborn repetition of old ones — sometimes both within the same story, the same mural — will continue for a long time to come. The "once upon a time," the stories begun long ago, keep unfolding in this place: good, bad and ugly. Frontiers keep closing and new horizons appear.

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