In old Western movies, the roles are rigid: characters on horseback are either cowboys or Indians. But these stereotypes, like most, are limiting and untrue. In reality, many Indians are cowboys, as the book, Riders of the West, demonstrates.
Photographer Linda MacCannell and writer Peter Iverson set the record straight by following the Indian rodeo circuit from Arizona, throughout the Rocky Mountain West and into southwestern Canada. MacCannell, whose grandparents grew up on the Navajo Reservation, illustrates the importance of rodeo to Indian culture with portraits of bored and anxious bull riders, rodeo clowns in their full regalia of face paint and knee-pads, and young mutton busters rocketing into the ring.
"This is photography unplugged. There are no digital enhancements, no soft focus lenses, no traveling stage props," she writes. "It was just me - with my 85 pounds of photographic gear - pulling into the rodeo grounds, looking forward to an afternoon of rodeo action and some conversations."
The dramatic photographs are interspersed with text by Iverson, a professor of history at the University of Arizona. Through the five essays the reader learns about the history and significance of horses in tribal culture, including the tale of how the Lakota named the horse sanka wakan, or holy dog. Though Iverson's style is academic, he spices it up with vivid interviews of bull riders, champion calf ropers and saddle bronco riders. At its core, Riders of the West is optimistic. It depicts how rodeo helps Indian youth create a legacy of hope and pride, transcending the severe poverty and rampant alcoholism that often await them beyond the arena,.
Riders of the West, Peter Iverson and Linda MacCannell. University of Washington Press, 1999. Paperback: $24.95. 120 pages.