Anthropology Magazine
Poem / Reflections

“Cowboys and Indians”—When Dirt Rocks Are Dynamite

A poet-anthropologist remembers how a popular childhood game reinforced notions of othering and hate—and reflects on how child’s play can set the stage for how we behave as adults.
A person wearing a blue shirt, a red neck scarf, a black mask, and a white cowboy hat stands in front of horses and points to something in the distance. He is next to another person with wavy black hair wearing a brown shirt with fringe.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto.

Silver Screen Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

"Cowboys and Indians" - Listen
2:47

“With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early West. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The Lone Ranger rides again!”
—Opening narration for the 1956 Lone Ranger feature film

Somehow during play
the rules changed
so you always wore the Cowboy hat 
and Simon the war paint.
It became something more
than “Cowboys and Indians.”

You in the plastic hat
fingers aimed 
at the pillowcase flopping in the wind.

When our dirt bikes became Quarter Horses
and Appaloosa, our cul-de-sac the Great Plains,
dirt rocks for dynamite 
always thrown hard enough to break.

It was with your new water gun pistol,
shining like a new nickel that found its way
from your blue jeans pocket
into our faces, red with fear.

Remember the bushes in the center (the wilderness)
where the Cowboy would sneak up on the Indian
peeking from behind his lipstick war paint,
“Stick ’em up,” you would say.
And for a few hours the hedges were the edge of “civilization,”
majestic mountain ranges that led to wherever imaginations followed.

We were only pretending
when the Indians gave chase,
when the Cowboy aimed and while shooting—
“Tonto” fell, screaming,
his knee scathed and bleeding.

A child wearing a yellow sweatshirt, a black face mask, and a white cowboy hat stands near a table covered with a white tablecloth with red flowers on it.

The author as a child playing the Lone Ranger.

Willie G. Vasser Jr.

He needed our help, and so we gathered our sticks,
which for a moment
became bows and arrows,
some dynamite and nerve.

We surrounded you near the curb.
All of us in our pillowcases,
inching toward you—
as you sprayed him.

There was so much water
his war paint had washed away
and he was crying but you
continued trying to drown him in bullets.

Until you saw the shadows from above
and like a ring of fire,
dirt rocks descended
breaking you into surrender.

Simon never recovered,
and we saw you less and less,
and when I think back
I guess—
that is when we all grew up
away and apart.

Jason Vasser-Elong’s research focuses on identity in a postcolonial context. He is the 2022 SAPIENS poet-in-residence. He studied anthropology and later received his MFA from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where he is currently a doctoral student in the college of education. Vasser-Elong is the author of the poetry collection Shrimp. His essay “Treading the Atlantic” was presented at the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Netherlandic Studies conference as an introduction to the keynote lecture on postcolonial memory. He also presented that essay at the American Anthropological Association’s conference “Truth and Responsibility” in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jvasserelong.

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