As an academic and a scholar of the American West, one of the recurring themes in my research is the entwinement of Western history with myth and nostalgia. In this age of rapid technological changes, acceleration of life, and increasing anonymity, Westerners in general, and I believe Wyomingites in particular, are struggling with the task of forging an identity that is rooted in our history but still adaptable to the changes of modern life. There’s an increasing disconnect between the older generation and the new, the old-timey Wyomingites and the newcomers; there’s a distinct lack of continuity between Wyoming’s history and future in peoples’ minds.
In the eyes of America and the world, Wyoming is being forged into the mythic West of the olden days, in which cowboys ride their horses into the sunset and don’t care much about anything else; sorry, no intelligent life here. Several occurrences in the past few years have contributed to this image: in 2010, Wyoming became the first state to adopt an official state code of ethics, the “Code of the West.” Here are the ten “commandments:”
While these certainly are honorable and admirable goals to strive for, they also have a distinct western ring to them, and while this western ring might strike a chord with people today, it is mostly because it feeds into the imagery of the mythic west of old.
Another example for Wyoming’s attempts to cling to its western past and somehow profit from it in today’s market is the Office of Tourism’s advertisement campaign with the slogan “Wyoming-Forever West,” and a tagline of “not to be tamed.” Yes, we will be forever west, in a geographic sense, but what are you implying? That the values of the Old West are still valid here? That we still ride horses to school and duel each other in the streets? The focus on the bucking horse around the state is another example. It becomes especially questionable in the context of the only state university adopting a symbol like the bucking horse as its most commonly-used logo. The university has a beautiful seal, the state has a meaningful motto (the “Equality State” for being the first to give women the right to vote), but still both entities repeatedly choose the old west symbol over all others. What does this project? That this is a “Cowboy Campus,” where we teach the old cowboy ways? “Forever 19th-century?” Are we saying that the Old West is alive in the state and that we haven’t changed one bit in the last century?
Newsflash, Wyoming: the younger generation does not identify with these values anymore. They are a nice-sounding triviality, an ode to bygone times, at best a cool symbol that students use to justify being rowdy, like they imagine the cowboys were in the Laramie saloons a century ago.
We need a more nuanced and more thoughtful approach to our western heritage. One that translates into our modern surroundings and does not exclusively evoke a mythic, golden past that was somehow better or simpler, because it wasn’t. Why can’t we be proud of how far Wyoming has gotten in the last century? Why can’t we focus on the adaptability of Wyomingites, their innovative spirit, the creativity of our youth? That does not mean that we have to discard our history; on the contrary. When you look at the history of cowboys more carefully, you can see a distinct effort to improve, to adapt, to evolve. Why can’t we do the same with the image we project to the nation and the world? Why do we continually reduce ourselves to the mythic west when we can be so much more? We have so much more to offer in this beautiful state!