Roy Rogers and the Crying Indian: The White Man’s Legacy

When I was a kid — (here we go again, an old timer reminisces) — When I was a kid you could get into the Saturday afternoon double feature at the local movie theater for fourteen cents. And you could watch two new movies, a travelogue, two or three cartoons, a newsreel, a comedy serial, and if you were lucky enough, you could get to see a new Roy Rogers Western. At least once a month, Roy would be fighting off Wild Indians (those two words were inseparable in those days). And sometimes he’d be on his valiant horse Trigger (a kind of four-legged good guy), galloping across the badlands in a cloud of dust, pursued by two dozen or so Wild Indians, and he’d turn around and get off one shot from his trusty silver-plated six-shooter and three Wild Indians would immediately fall off their mounts, deader than a doornail. And we never questioned the logic behind this implausible scenario because he was the good guy and the Wild Indians were the bad guys, and the good guys had special powers that the bad guys didn’t have. This was why we were going to win the war, because we were the good guys and the good guys always win.

Now, I know how simplistic and foolish this all sounds — good guys, bad guys — but then again, we, the good guys, did actually win the war, and the bad guys did actually lose the war. And before we’re all too quick to dismiss this whole ridiculous paradigm it might be worth remembering that — as I pointed out in an earlier article — two historians of the caliber of Sir John Keegan and Professor Gerhard Weinberg both agreed unequivocally with the characterization of WWII as being a battle between Good and Evil, a war which the Good ultimately won. So perhaps there was something cogent about this simplistic paradigm after all. Perhaps —

When I was a kid things were simpler. Notice, I didn’t say they were better — that probably comes under the heading of a personal subjective opinion. But I doubt if anyone would argue that things were not simpler then. Bad was bad and good was good. It was always pretty obvious who the good guys were — most of them looked like us, or at least the way we imagined that we might look someday when we got older. And the bad guys mostly didn’t look like us. They looked like Wild Indians or Savage Zulu warriors or Space Monsters or especially Japs. And even if they did look like us, somehow they looked meaner and less trustworthy. Anyway, you could always tell who they were. And — now here comes the really controversial part — the good guys were almost invariably white guys. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it was. Sometimes they might be old white guys, like Gabby Hayes, or sometimes (but pretty rarely) they could be colored guys, and sometimes they could even be recently-converted Wild Indians, like the Lone Ranger’s loyal sidekick, Tonto. But, chances are, some white guy was probably in charge.

Then came those fateful cultural upheavals of the Self-Righteous Sixties and everything changed. Now, the surest way to alienate that good-looking brunette you were talking to at that Saturday night party was to say something — actually, say anything — at all derogatory about American Indians or colored guys. It would have had about the same effect as saying something derogatory about our fathers and brothers in uniform during that great war two decades earlier. The tables had turned and you’d better be careful now about what you were saying and who you were saying it about. The good guys weren’t necessarily the white guys anymore. In fact, the chances were pretty good that the white guys were now the bad guys and those other guys were now the good guys. There was a different take on that same old scenario. Now, the Indian (no longer stuck with that unpleasant modifier, ‘Wild’) was being chased by two dozen white calvary soldiers, and he’d turn around and get off one shot with his bow and arrow and immediately three white calvary soldiers would fall off their mounts, deader than a doornail.

It’s damn near impossible to talk about white people’s accomplishments nowadays, isn’t it? It is permissible, however, even commendable to honor and celebrate the achievements and the accomplishments of almost any race but the white race. Why? Because we are the bad guys now. We were all wrong back then, we had it all backwards. We only thought we were the good guys.

In one of television’s most successful Public Service commercials, “Keep America Beautiful”, a sorrowful Chief Iron Eyes Cody became the conscience of America, when he silently shed that now-famous tear in 1971 for the lost beauty of our great country, which we had thoughtlessly besmirched with our incessant and irresponsible littering. We had stolen his land and then we abused it. We believed him, too, because he had become a good guy now, the very personification of nobility and honor, reminding us new bad guys of all our many, many failures and sins.

Two years later, on March 27, 1973, Marlon Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his unforgettable leading role in The Godfather. Although Brando won, he famously declined the award and boycotted the award ceremony, sending Native American Rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. Sacheen stated Brando’s reasons: Brando objected to the depiction of Native Americans by Hollywood. Thus, by declining this prestigious award, Marlon Brando had defined himself as a good guy — a white guy, but a good white guy who had seen the light and was publicly repentant. And this is what it meant now to be a good white guy, to proudly wear your Crown of Thorns and loudly proclaim your guilt to Mankind. We’re sorry, World. Your reparation checks are in the mail.

Of course, there are still those occasional voices of dissent. Here’s one now:

We of European descent need no instruction in those things higher from outsiders. We, who gave birth to Dante, Shakespeare, Leonardo, Plato, Newton, Mozart. We, who alone can perceive the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. How dare they!

They, who depend upon the genius, magnanimity, and nobility of our beautiful people. They, whom without us would lose everything that make life worth living in this world. They, who would see us exterminated. What words?!?

But for the White man’s agricultural genius there are literally billions of third-worlders who would not be breathing at this instant.*

This is the voice of white pride. Not the shrill threatening voice of the crazy white supremacist, or the loony eugenicist, but the angry voice of a frustrated but rational human being, one of those few unrepentant white guys who are not quite ready yet to shuffle apologetically off the stage, still in the costume of the cold-hearted villain of this play.

And so the world has moved on and you can’t get into a movie for fourteen cents anymore, not even to a Saturday matinee. And the chances are pretty good that the bad guys are all white guys now, and most likely work for the United States Government. Marlon Brando, whose real name was Marlon Brando, Jr. passed away in 2004. And those two original protagonists in this classic duel between the selfish imperialistic white man and the noble, more morally advanced savage are gone now, too. Roy Rogers, whose real name was Leonard Franklin Slye, who was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, rode off into the sunset in June of 1998; just six months later his erstwhile symbolic nemesis, Chief Iron Eyes Cody, who was in reality a Sicilian by the name of Espera di Corti, died peacefully in his sleep at his home in California.

But us white folks are still here and, despite all the rumors to the contrary, still strong and proud, neither arrogant nor apologetic. Still trying to sort out the meanings of those old scenarios; sifting through the ashes of our shared histories, searching for the truths of our separate but inextricably entangled stories. And so it goes.

*Quote from comments by Captian Chaos to article in Maggie’s Notebook.