Remember when we played cowboys and Indians? by E. Ayers

Please help me welcome my friend E. Ayers to my blog today. She has one of the best columns we’ve had and I know it will resonate with all of you.

ARW_web_sm_2Remember when we played cowboys and Indians? I had a metal toy gun, and it even took rolls of paper with gunpowder dots. When you cocked the gun, the paper slid forward so when you pulled the trigger, the hammer slammed against the little dot and it went POW! It was so cool! I have no idea how many dots were on a roll (25-50?) only that I had to “save” them and not use them all up frivolously. Huh? It was a toy, and it’s called playing. Maybe that meant I was supposed to be certain of my aim before I pulled the trigger, unlike the TV shows where everyone shot into the air and made lots of noise. Anyway, I had it all, thanks to two older brothers. I had the felt hat, the tooled leather gun belt and holster, the gun, the suede vest and even the sheriff’s star.

Also in my toy box I had the tomahawk, knife, the headdress with colorful feathers, and a reed flute. Thinking back, it makes me wonder. Was the flute a last resort weapon? Maybe they could blow it in the enemy’s ears and ruin their hearing before scalping them. Or were my parents hopeful I might learn to play a musical instrument. I only remember that I was not allowed to throw the tomahawk or the knife with their wooden handles and rubber blades, because someone might get hurt. Most likely that would have been the dog, as it was extremely rare for me to have playmate when I was very young.

But if I had a playmate, I never wanted to be the Indian. The Indian always had to die. The cowboy with the gun always won, and Indians were always the bad guys. The only fun part of being an Indian was dying creatively. That meant you got to dive into the grass and roll down the long hill, lift the tomahawk as if you were going to throw it, then in a dramatic flourish fall back and die.

No one ever questioned why the Indians were the bad guys. They just were.

Fortunately, I grew up in the north in a pocket community of educated people. I never knew a thing about prejudice and even when I came face-to-face with it, I had no comprehension of what it was. Life was simple. You went to the Presbyterian church, the Baptist church, the Catholic Church (you always spelled their church with a capitol C), or you were Jewish, which meant they were still waiting for somebody like Jesus. But they were okay and didn’t need Jesus, because they were God’s chosen people. Yep, life was simple.

Then my parents decided it was time to expand my six-year-old world and teach me about the United States. They yanked me out of school, but brought my schoolbooks with them, and to make matters worse, they added a few extras to the pile. I got to see forty-six of the forty-eight States.

A few things happened on that trip and with it came the realization that not all people were considered equal. I remember seeing signs for whites only. My unfortunate mom was coping with this inquisitive, precocious child who couldn’t imagine why Negroes were any different from white people. The only thing different about them was the color of their skin. And she’s trying to explain not everyone feels that way while hissing we are not going to have this discussion in public!

But I’m thirsty. Why can’t I use this water fountain? Why do I have to wait in line for the one that says whites only? They both work. What difference does color make?

Later, she explained how incredibly stupid such an attitude was but also tried to explain why people embraced prejudice. Then she told me how people hated the Jews. What? Why would anyone hate my friends and their families? My mom bought books on slavery, and Hitler. Ugh! More books.

I saw chain gangs wearing striped uniforms and real heavy chains that hooked these men together at their ankles while they worked on the roads. I saw people picking cotton. My mom said to remember this and don’t ever forget it. I never have forgotten any of it.

I had begged my parents to let me see an Indian as we drove westward. My mom promised there were plenty of Indians where we were going. I remember the first Indian male I’d ever seen. He was working at the gas station where we had pulled in to fill up the car. Thinking back, he was in his early twenties and probably closer to twenty. He didn’t look like an Indian. He wore regular clothes, jeans and a tee shirt! His dark blue-black hair was cut short, the way my much older married brother wore his. The Indian had sharp, chiseled features, and even at my young age, I knew he was extremely handsome. In my excitement, I jumped out of the car and asked, “Are you a real Indian?”

If looks could have killed, I probably would have died on the spot. I don’t think he ever answered me. But my mom almost killed me and with it came another lecture about people being prejudiced.

That was it. I decided that half the world hated the other half and the other half hated the first half because everybody thought they were better than anyone else. And in my childish, idealistic way, I decided we’d all be better off if we just stopped hating each other over the stupidest things and accepted the differences. I also realized I had been prejudiced by TV into thinking that Indians ran around in buckskins and said ugg! They were just people who lived in houses and went to school or work like everyone else.

We must have traveled through a reservation, because suddenly everyone around us was an Indian. Something broke on the car and we had to stay a few days until the part came in. We stayed at a motel in a small town and I assume the children I had found belonged to the owners. We had fun. They were little girls just like me, except they had the most beautiful color to their skin, sort of sun-kissed reddish brown.

Later, my mom bought me a doll dressed in traditional Navajo clothes. She was one of my prettiest dolls and I loved playing with her. I also never wanted to play cowboys and Indians ever again. It was wrong and I knew it. But many a time, I played Indian princess.

Fast forward to the present. Over the years, I’d picked up tidbits about our American Indians and their cultures. I’m on the east coast and there’s not many true-blooded Indians left on the east coast. Those we didn’t kill, we married. So most all have other blood mixed into them. And our dirty-laundry history said if you weren’t white you were colored, therefore any color was colored. (And everyone knew colored was just another name for Negro.)

It took until the 1960’s and a huge advertising campaign before most people woke up and realized that our American Indians were people who were just as entitled to an education as any other American. They were employable, and they deserved equal pay and benefits. The list goes on and on. Who remembers the childhood jump rope ditty rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief? Today that doctor or lawyer just might be an Indian chief as more American Indians have access to universities and scholarship monies are made available to them.

Bigotry is a difficult attitude to erase. There are plenty of people who are reading this wondering why anyone would feel any prejudice towards another person based on the color of their skin. That idealistic six-year-old in me is shouting with joy, because children know there is no difference between people. They recognize the differences and happily will play with anyone who will play with them. We’ve come a long way since 1896. (At least, I hope we have.) But we haven’t achieved world peace.

It’s only been in the last fifteen years and with the help of the Internet that I’ve really had an education in American Indian history. And even what I do know is still very limited. It’s getting better, and the various tribes are starting to create websites with information on their culture and their history. As an outsider looking in, it’s important to remember that each tribe is different.

The more I’ve learned about the Crow Nation, the more thrilled I am that I had chosen them in be part of my Creed’s Crossing, Wyoming stories. They were one of the most feared tribes by the other nations, yet they were one of the most peaceful tribes. In other words, they didn’t want to fight, but if pushed, they would fight to their death. They were also one of the few tribes that held woman in very high esteem.

When I wrote A Rancher’s Woman, I wanted to portray history as accurately as possible. I refused to hide what we did to not just the Crow tribe but to all the tribes, and to show the prejudice against these people. I want people to see Mark “Many Feathers” Hunter, not just as an Indian but also as a man. One who is as fascinated with Malene’s milky white skin, golden-blonde hair, and blue eyes, as she is with his dark handsome looks. He is a man with that pioneer spirit to succeed where there is nothing – a man who is willing to learn new things as a way of protecting his people and preserving who they are.

Malene had grown up in a protected environment of upper middle class. Pushed and pulled along in the tide of the conventions of the time, she has to find her own footing and with it the confidence to break away from what she is supposed to be doing. It isn’t enough to admit that she loves an Indian – she has to be strong enough to step away from society’s strict standards and forge her own path.

Pick up your copy of A Rancher’s Woman on Amazon http:// www.


(Shared Blog)

(Amazon Author Page)
http:// e/ B005AYJ0XE

Other Books by E. Ayers

Wanting (A River City Novel)
A New Beginning (A River City Novel)
A Challenge (A River City Novel)
Forever (A River City Novel)
A Son (A River City Novel)
A Child’s Heart (A River City Novel)
Coming Out of Hiding (a novel)
A Rancher’s Woman (a historical novel) *
A Fine Line (a novella) *
Mariners Cove (a novella)
Ask Me Again (a novella)
A Skeleton at Her Door (a novella)
A Snowy Christmas in Wyoming (a novella) *
A Cowboy’s Kiss in Wyoming (a novella) *
A Love Song in Wyoming (a novella) *
A Calling in Wyoming (a novella) *
Sweetwater Springs Christmas (anthology) *
Exquisite Quills’ A Holiday Anthology (anthology) *

* sweeter reads

39 thoughts on “Remember when we played cowboys and Indians? by E. Ayers

    • We do have a long way to go. Education is the cure for bigotry is born in ignorance. Adults need to put aside their own feelings and teach the children not to prejudge. It’s never easy.

  1. What a lovely article! Which only goes to show you that you learn prejudice, you’re not born with it. I grew up in Farmington New Mexcio, as close to the reservation as you can get without living on it. I played with Indian children and they were my friends. How odd I didn’t know they were different until later years. Or they didn’t know that I was different until later years. The synonym for prejudice is fear. If you’re raised together you see them as people. Your book sounds like my kind of read, E.

    • Thanks, Donnell. I hope you do read and enjoy it. None of us are ever really different. We all have the same hopes and dreams for our lives and for our children.

  2. This brought back memories. I had a cap gun. I loved the smell of the bit of gunpowder and, of course, the noise of the bang. I played cowboys and Indians except I don’t remember any of us kids playing the part of an Indian. When I was really little, my parents took me to some kind of celebration at one of our city parks, and there were Indians there dressed in their regalia. I remember the chief with his marvelous headdress. I learned they were Potawatomi. When I was in junior high, I read a biography of Custer and hated him.

    I’m looking forward to reading your book.

  3. History is written by the winners and of course our history was skewed. As adults we have more control over our learning and can find out the truth. I had the cap gun too and found that you didn’t need the gun. A rock would make the same noise on those red rolls. Never played cowboys and Indians, but bank robbers! I did dress up as a beautiful Indian princess for Halloween one year.

    I used to go into schools and teach the children the truth about Native American history. It was fun to share my knowledge with the children. I loved your post. It brought back many memories.

  4. We are so quick to point out what they did to us, but not what we did to them. We were the intruders. We took their lands, and ruined their water supplies. The list goes on and on. It’s no wonder they hated us.

    We talk about being environmentally friendly – the Indians could have taught all of that to us. They were the stewards of the land. They never wasted a thing.

    I would love to hear you talking to the children. What a wonderful thing to do!

  5. Brings back a lot of childhood memories, playing with cousins and friends ,,,
    I remember riding our horses ,, now my legs couldn’t do it …
    Wonderful times …

  6. What a great article. When I was a kid, I fancied myself Hopalong Cassidy and my tricycle was Topper. I wouldn’t answer to anything except Hoppy. I’d tie myself to the leg of the bed and wait until my trusty Topper came to nibble on the ropes to untie me. Needless to say, I was there for quite a while. My interest in Native American history and culture goes back a good 30 years. I never thought of Indians in a romanticized way, just as people, some good, some bad. Reservation life, even today, is a sad commentary to a proud and free-roaming people.

    • I had Hopalong Cassidy silverware. All the cowboys were the good guys back then. And Saturday morning I’d sit in front of the TV and watch the westerns.

      We put them on reservations to “protect” them from us. Then we starved them to death. What we did was horrible! Almost unthinkable. All because they were different.

    • Thank you, Rose, for your kind words. The Cold War was a little too real to my generation, but I did love the cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle. And I read Eloise to the children when I babysat. I never though of it as Cold War until I stating reading them to my children and realized they weren’t very relevant anymore.

      Personally, I think the Internet is the greatest weapon against war and prejudice. Hard to hate when you know people.

  7. AMAZING! Daddy always told us that we were as good as anyone, but not better than anyone. I tried to remember that. I was raised in Georgia, and I saw the separate water fountains and restrooms. We didn’t eat out, so I missed the fact that some people couldn’t eat wherever they chose to eat. I saw integration hit schools and went North to teach for a year and had students ask questions about how badly we treated blacks in the South. I hadn’t seen the hatred they thought I had, but I saw different prejudices.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking blog.

  8. Excellent article. I remember playing cowboys and Indians on our horses. If we were shot, we had to fall off. I always wanted to be an Indian because they were better horsemen (at least that’s what it looked like on TV.)

  9. E,

    Great article. It brought back lots of memories. One including a picture of my brother in diapers with a holster, gun and cowboy hat. 🙂 Yes, those days were easier and I grew up in a home with a father who later reminded me of Archie Bunker, but only at home. In public he never treated anyone different than anyone else. Despite some shortcomings, one thing my parents did not teach us was prejudice. You always treated everyone with respect. If more people would teach their children that life would be much nicer. Here’s to continuing the effort. Great read, E. I’ll look for the book, too.

    • Thanks for stopping, Sandra. I think my mom was the liberal one, and my dad’s views were a little different. Bur as you said I never saw anything but respect towards all people.

  10. Great article. I loved the history and being told from your point of view. Thank heavens times have changed, but I think we still have a little way to go. I look forward to reading your book.

    • Thanks for stopping, Beverley. I really hope you enjoy it. The hardest thing to portray when writing history, is not the times and events, but the attitudes. We joke now about children playing with the box that the toys came in, but can you imagine being an adult and receiving a package in the mail that was in a cardboard box when such a thing had never existed before? That had to have been almost as much fun as what was in the package.

  11. My dad was a country boy growing up in the deep south during the Great Depression. They took in a little African American boy into their home because he had no family after his mother died. My grandparents gave him a home and food until years later when an aunt came back into the area and took him in. That sort of story doesn’t get that much publicity. But, I’ve always thought it was a lovely story about the south. A child needed taking care of during those hard times and a white Southern family took care of him.

    • Oh, thank you so much, Riley, for sharing such a heart-warming story. Times were tough back then and feeding a family was difficult so to add another mouth had to have been a decision made with love and grace.

    • As far as I know, there’s not a drop of Am Indian blood in me anywhere, but from those early encounters I’ve always felt drawn to them. Maybe it’s just that tall, dark, and handsome thing. Really, seriously, there is something about the Indian heritage and culture that speaks to me. It’s the way they see earth, moon, sun, stars, life, death, and our role as humans in the bigger picture.

  12. I grew up in Okla. at a time when the BIA was still yanking Indian children out of their families and putting them into BIA schools away from their families, their homes, their culture and everything familiar to them and forcing them to stop being Indian and become “civilized” like whites! Since my younger brother and are part Cherokee Mother hid that part of our lineage from us. There must be something to the theory of genetic memory because I never wanted to belong to the cowboy gang but instead I insisted on playing the role of an Indian warrior (never occurred to me or my playmates that this was not a normal thing since I was a girl!!) Some real horror stories as to how those children were treated to teach them to become “civilized” can be found in memoirs and interviews with the survivors.

    • Hi Missy Lou, I’m so glad you stopped by. Today the BIA is staffed by quite a few Am Indians or those with ties to the various tribes. Things are still far from perfect, but the BIA has been a great resource for me. For years and years the Am Indians hated the BIA for what they did. It’s easy to see why.

  13. I enjoyed hearing about your trip across the States. Your parents showed you that bigotry exists, but that you don’t have to be part of it. They sound like great parents. Your post brought back memories. Here in the UK I also used to play at cowboys and Indians with my brothers, and had a cap gun. And yes, the Indians always had to die. At that age, we didn’t question the prejudice. We saw it on television, and all around us. Thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Helena. My parents loved to travel and we traveled! People don’t do road trips as they once did. Everyone flies, and it’s not the same. And if they happened to go someplace by car, the children have their noses on the DVD player instead of looking out the window.

  14. I, too, remember playing Cowboys and Indians and my big grey .45 revolver that not only fired caps but had a powder chamber that blew out a puff of smoke when I pulled the trigger. I also stumbled against racial bigotry now and then. When we visited friends (our neighbors at Camp LeJeune during WWII, I was playing baseball with my friend also named Bobby when I noticed a black boy watching us behind the wire fence.I wanted to ask him to join us but Bobby said he wasn’t allowed. I didn’t understand, after all I grew up a Dodgers fan and rooted for Jackie Robinson since I was 6. There were a number of incidents as I grew into my teens. I have a hatred for bigotry based on color, religion, etc. Yeah, I had Jewish friends when Jews were rated as low as Negroes. I didn’t care what others thought and I still don’t. Love ya, Bev.

  15. E.,

    Thank you for such a profound discussion. Many of your points resonated with me.

    I played cowboys not Indians and, as an only child until I was 13, I did most of my playing on the back of a horse all by my self. I grew up on a cattle ranch in the heydey of John Wayne westerns, but I was absolutely in love with Dean Martin and pretended I was him. My grandfather even carved a wooden pistol for me with the name “Tom Elder” on it.

    I grew up in a non-racially prejudiced family, and I passed those beliefs on to my own children. I was taught that people are people are people, and there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in every culture, but skin color and religion are immaterial to how we treat each other. I am grateful for that from my parents.

    By the time I hit junior high, I was shamefully aware of how the Native Americans had suffered at the hands of the ‘white man’ throughout our US history. So in high school, I was ripe for a cause and a group of us found it in the American Indian Movement when they became involved in “Wounded Knee ’73”. I’m talking sit-in at my school, fund-raising, writing newspaper editorials, and generally doing what we could to mount a ‘protest’ in our own little way. Down deep inside, as an American, I feel culturally culpable in a collective consciousness sort of way for the persecution and terrible treatment—as a culture—that Native Americans experienced historically.

    • Each little voice counts up! Collectively they make a difference. There’s still more that needs to be done.

      Growing up on the east coast, my education in our American west is sorely lacking. I think it consisted of Pony Express the railroad crossing the USA. Two lines? I’ve spent hours and hours researching and reading accounts. I’ve also sat and cried my way through so much of what I’ve discovered. Heart breaking!

  16. Thanks, Cynthia, for allowing me to visit with you and all of your readers. I had so much fun hearing from everyone and all their wonderful memories of growing up that they shared.

    We tossed all the names into a hat and pulled out three. Nancy, Sherry, and Helena. They have each won a promotional e-copy of A Rancher’s Woman. Congrats, ladies!

    And thanks again, Cynthia for having me. Happy reading!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *