Native Americans At Cowboy Poetry Gathering: 'We Just Didn't Feel Welcome'

Feb 8, 2017

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering brings thousands of people from around the world to Elko, to enjoy and celebrate in the cowboy culture of the American West. But some local Native Americans argue there isn’t enough representation of their stories during the annual festival.

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick reports.

A sea of colored beads, gourds and baskets fill the historic Girl Scout House in Elko, a small community center with creaky wooden floors and fluorescent lighting. Tables showcase a range of traditional and contemporary Western Shosone styles.

It’s all part of the Great Basin Native Market, which took place last week just blocks away from the Elko Convention Center, the main venue for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Angie Quintana has a corner table at the market, where she shows off her jewelry, purses and other traditionally-made wares.
Credit Noah Glick

Artist Angie Quintana presented an overview of her work, which includes beaded purses, jewelry and keychains.

“Beading takes all my stress away, keeps my energy level from flowing so high,” she says. “It is more or less my quiet time.”

Quintana says her work is important because it helps carry on Native American traditions, keeping them alive.

“You got to be proud to be a Native American,” she adds. “You got to be proud to be that color of your skin is there and you can’t take that color away. Because that was what you were born with, and not to be ashamed of it.”

Lois Whitney started the market 13 years ago to give local Native Americans a chance to share their culture with the influx of visitors coming to town.

But she says the Western Folklife Center, which organizes the annual Gathering, isn’t doing enough to include her community.

“The Folklife Center should have included the Indians more, you know the cowboy and Indian idea,” she says. “We’re cowboys, too. We’re storytellers, too. But we were never really brought into that process, so we created our own.”

Whitney says as the Gathering grew into an international festival, it became more formal, which has scared off some locals.

“I think the cowboy poetry, when it first started, it was different. But it became more of a black tie affair,” Whitney says. “I think it just made it uncomfortable for us; we just didn’t feel welcome.”

David Roche is the executive director for the Western Folklife Center. He says there was more Native American representation at the Gathering this year, including a film series on the loss of native language.

“Actually we have a three-year project up at the Duck Valley Reservation with a school district up there, where kids have been producing incredible videos that have been prize-winning videos,” he says.

One session at the Gathering, Local Indian Cowboy Stories, shared unique tales from Woody Harney, Ted Howard, Mike Thomas and Reggie Sope.
Credit Victoria Jackson / Te-Moak News

In addition to that project, two more sessions at the Gathering were focused on Native American stories. Roche says he’s working to continue that growth.

“There’s always room for more, but if you go to our gift shop, you’ll see that our two best-selling painters are Micqaela Jones and her son,” Roche says. “So the quality of work, we have it in there.”

Micqaela Jones was raised on the Duck Valley Reservation straddling Nevada and Idaho and moved back to Elko two years ago. She says she’s pleased with the collaboration.

“I’m happy to see that the folklife center, they usually have a rule that they don’t allow their artists, like I would have to be exclusive to them. I said, ‘I’m staying with the Native and I’ll come and see you guys when I can.’ So I think it’s about them being flexible too.”

Micqaela Jones talks about her artwork with a potential customer at the Great Basin Native Market.
Credit Noah Glick

Jones has her work for sale at both the Convention Center and the Native Market. And she’s beginning to see more local Native American artists showcase their work.

But Victoria Jackson says that process remains a challenge. She’s the editor and producer for Te-Moak News, the local tribal newspaper. She says these artists lack the confidence to collaborate with organizations to share their work.

“We need to make ourselves a little more exposed, and there comes that self-promotion again. We’re not very good at it,” she says. “But if we can start becoming in contact with the people we need to talk to, that would I think help a ton.”

Native Market organizer Lois Whitney says she thinks that hesitation goes back generations.

“I think the fear is that if they share, it’s going to be taken from them. But basically, to share is how we all progress,” she says.

And while there has been some progress, Whitney hopes to see even more locals present their work at the Girl Scout House for years to come.