Subtopic : Eastern Oregon: Cattle Country
Themes: Social Relations, Folklife
From Mann Lake to below the Nevada line and from the Idaho border to the Gearhart Mountains, the heart of the Oregon’s southeast is cattle ranching and cowboy culture. Many lament the loss of the family farm and ranch and the accompanying cultures, yet even in Oregon’s shifting economy, 90 percent of the ranches in Harney County are family owned and operated. Buckaroo traditions thrive in small towns like Crane, where rawhide braider Terry Ott is sought out for his variety of ropes—riatas, hackamores, and quirts.
In Malheur County, Frankie Dougal of Jordan Valley cleans, combs, then spins the horsehair into different types—fidors, hackamores, snaffle bit trainer ropes, and others. Dougal makes horsehair ropes she learned from her mother, who had apprenticed in her own youth to a Mexican vaquero, the Mexican cowboys who came north from California and Texas in the nineteenth century. They brought with them an open-range system of cattle herding with roots in sixteenth century Spain. Their methods live on today, evident in the trade’s names and tools: stirrups, chaps, the lariat or riata, McCarty (mecate), tapaderos, bronc and rodeo.
On Saturday nights, ranchers from throughout the county head to local bars or to community centers to dance. If you listen hard, you might catch strains of music from “one man band” Ruel Teague of Burns. He might be on harmonica, mandolin, guitar, banjo, or fiddle. “I guess I was born with it—it came down the line,” Teague says of his family’s musical legacy.
Another art flourishing in eastern Oregon is cowboy poetry, verse created from everyday working lives. Poets in Oregon may perform at gatherings in Pendleton, Baker City, Burns, and other regional centers or at the granddaddy of all cowboy poetry festivals held each January in Elko, Nevada. Folklorists at the Western Folklife Center, which sponsors the event, write that cowboy culture is a
… jazz of Irish storytelling, Scottish seafaring and cattle tending, Moorish and Spanish horsemanship, European cavalry traditions, African improvisation and Native American experience, if not oppression.
Cowboy poets are now female as well as male and live in town as well as on the ranch. Ruby Kirk of Weston is a frequent attendee at festivals. She writes about life on a ranch but also creates humorous verse about topics such as men’s snoring. Cowboy poetry, like other folk arts, changes and adapts, surviving because it serves as a vehicle for expressing the indignities and epiphanies of daily life.
© Joanne B. Mulcahy, 2005.
Themes: Social Relations,Folklife
Regions: Southeastern Oregon
Author: Joanne B. Mulcahy
The heart of southeastern Oregon is cattle ranching and cowboy culture.
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