Political Myth No. 2:  “Cowboy State” and “Equality State” are contradictory nicknames

There’s been quite the flap over the University of Wyoming slogan about the world needing more cowboys. Phil Roberts wrote this perspective in this piece in Wyoming Almanac.

The new University of Wyoming recruitment slogan “The World News More Cowboys!” has caused quite a stir among Cowboy Nation.

On its surface, the slogan is exclusive to men which has caused the uproar. The Wyoming mainstream seems to think it’s another liberal and politically-correct fake-news conspiracy and no big deal.

Maybe I’m just old school and think that a slogan or logline needs to stand on its own without explanation or rationale.

Apparently, along with the slogan, are images of non-stereotypical cowboys, who would be an Asian student smiling at the camera while at the library.

Maybe a woman signing up for a class at the registrar’s office.

Cognitive dissonance.

That’s a little heady. Whether or not one ad campaign touting the least populated state in the nation gains any traction is anyone’s guess. The negative pushback has received more national media attention than the UW administration hoped.

Particularly since the story is now about the provincial Wyoming mentality about western expansion and Native American genocide vs. whatever image the school is trying to project about there is “no such thing as a cowboy” except in myth.

osu cowboys slogan

Oklahoma State University’s alumni and friends are the epitome of loyal and true. With a love of all things orange, you can help share the spirit of OSU with the next generation of Cowboys and Cowgirls! 
If you know a high school or transfer student that would make a great addition to the Cowboy family, please consider passing along his or her information.

The other aspect about this strikes me as weird. Oklahoma State University (OSU) also are the Cowboys and came up with the same “The World Needs More Cowboys” slogan. Apparently OSU and UW came to an agreement that Wyoming could use the slogan, too.

I want to know the backstory about the Boulder, Colorado ad firm that co-opted the OSU slogan and paid $500,000 to “develop” it.

Just a coincidence?

OSU came to fisticuffs in 1993 over the Pistol Pete trademark infringement. OSU prevailed in that one and Wyoming can use Pistol Pete, but I haven’t seen that logo used in recent times. New Mexico State University recently settled with OSU about it’s Pistol Pete logo. NMSU has since moved on from Pistol Pete.

It takes academic analysis to explain the Wyoming slogans. Retired UW history professor gave a very thorough vetting of the issue in 2007:

Cowboy State? Equality State?

By Phil Roberts

The new Wyoming quarter, officially unveiled in September 2007, shows Wyoming’s license-plate bucking horse and next to it are three words: “The Equality State.”

It’s not the only place where the seemingly contradictory nicknames seem to joust for dominance.  The legislature designated the state officially as “the Equality State” back in the early 1900s, but even Wyoming Public Radio refers to Wyoming with the more “tourist-friendly” nickname, “The Cowboy State.”

The cowboy is an image that has been with us for a very long time. The bucking horse went on the license plate in 1935—the first logo on any license plate in America.

If a state has a “self-image” (something I often question), are we more drawn to one than the other?  “Cowboy State?”  “Equality State?”  Doesn’t one cancel out the other? Are these contradictions?

I say the two nicknames represent remarkably compatible concepts.  In modern times, the image of the cowboy has taken a beating, becoming stereotyped, for good or bad, as a term denoting reckless foreign policy, for instance, or fiercely intolerant and destructive acts against the environment.  Cowboys, in Hollywood film, have been gun-toting, fighting, hard-drinking white guys who showed educated sophistication when it came to dealing with women, the law and the community–the ones wearing white hats anyway.

But like all stereotypes, this one is mostly wrong when you look at history.  Open-range cowboys in frontier Wyoming came from every racial and ethnic group. Most didn’t have anything except a saddle and a backpack—and sometimes, his own horse. Few had even rudimentary education. They were mostly the floating transient population of their day.

That is not to say they lacked understanding of their environment. Unlike farmers who tried to change the landscape by clearing land and digging irrigation ditches or miners that dug big ugly holes in the ground, the cowboy lived with the environment. He put on a slicker when it rained, tied his hat down tight with a bandanna to keep the winter winds at bay, and tried to protect his charges from thirst, snow-blindness, and wolves. He knew he couldn’t change the environment; he just had to live with what it dealt him.

And the equality part?  Mostly, he judged other cowboys by how well he rode, whether he paid you back if you loaned him a quarter for cigarettes, how hard he worked, and whether you can count on him to watch your back in a fracas. Every man had to prove himself, regardless of race or ancestry. It didn’t matter how great one’s family was. It was what he was that counted. As my grandmother used to say, “Every tub sits on its own bottom.”

But there are awful lapses in how Wyomingites have dealt with “equality.” From the Rock Springs massacre to the Black 14 and Mathew Shepard, some would say “equality” isn’t a nickname Wyoming deserves. I disagree.

“The cowboy state” ought to reflect the non-stereotypical past—when being a cowboy meant honor, capacity for hard work, and respect for the individual. In some ways, it is “historical”—a touchstone to look back to for inspiration. It is retrospective—even a mythical way for us to identify with the past.

And the “equality state”—that nickname is aspirational—a goal toward which we ought to be striving. While we likely will continue to come up short, being mindful of striving for equality ought to continue to make us not only a more humane society, but conscious of our state’s reputation for friendliness to visitors, for dedication to community, for tolerance of other’s views—and for valuing individual differences.

And the two nicknames aren’t contradictory. As we aspire to greater equality, we need to remain true to the “cowboy” way that brought us this to this point—not just the Hollywood version, but what came from the reality of the Wyoming cowboy of the open-range days.

After all, they are both on the same coin.

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