February 10, 2011 / 9:05 PM / 8 years ago

Cowboy "Code of the West" spurs debate in Montana

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers in Montana are riding herd on legislation to brand the maxims of the mythic American cowboy into an official state creed.

The so-called “Code of the West” is borrowed from the 2005 book “Cowboy Ethics” by veteran investment manager James P. Owen and contains such aphorisms for daily life as “Ride for the brand,” “Talk less and say more” and “Always finish what you start.”

Leaders of the Republican-controlled Montana legislature say those ideals should guide Americans whether they work on the range or on Wall Street, where Owen, now a California resident, conceived of the 10 cowboy-based commandments.

But enthusiasm is being reined in by a veto threat from the state’s Democratic governor and critics who see the bill as an insult to Indians and counter to Western disdain for a government telling individuals how they should behave.

The Montana Senate passed the bill this week and House is expected to approve it soon.

“These are principles that will help this country and this state go forward and do the right things for the right reasons,” said state Senate President Jim Peterson, a rancher from Buffalo, Montana.

The 10 principles also include: “Live each day with courage,” “Take pride in your work,” “Do what has to be done,” “Be tough but fair,” “When you make a promise, keep it,” “Remember that some things aren’t for sale,” and “Know where to draw the line.”

The code began moseying across the West last year, when Wyoming adopted it as the official ethos for the Cowboy State.

But Peterson’s yearning for a simpler time when cattlemen sealed a livestock sale with a handshake is spurring debate in the Big Sky State and opening old wounds for Native Americans.

Leaders of Montana’s 10 Indian tribes see it as code for something else — the resurgence of a cowboy culture that rode roughshod over Native Americans. For them, the bill pays tribute to historic figures who ravaged tribal cultures, seized lands and devalued women.

“The values and principles of that era didn’t include American Indians, and it didn’t provide for the equality of women,” said state Senator Shannon Augare, a member of the governing council of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana.

Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer believes the measure is “frivolous” and may veto it, spokeswoman Sarah Elliott said.

The figure of the American cowboy — rugged, laconic and self-reliant — is firmly rooted in the popular imagination if not in fact, said Kevin Marsh, historian of the American West at Idaho State University. Marsh said Hollywood westerns and commercial figures like the Marlboro Man add to iconic image of the cowboy even though open-range ranching spanned just two decades ending in 1885.

Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune

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