Most of our impressions of life in the “Old West” come from movies. But they only tell part of the story.
Photographer Ivan McClellan is working to fill that gap in knowledge by showcasing the role of Black cowboys in the American West – not just from the past, but in today’s rodeos as well. And a new exhibit at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody celebrates that culture.
“I started shooting cowboys of color five years ago,” said McClellan, who is based out of Portland, Oregon. “I went to a rodeo in Oklahoma and I just fell in love with the culture. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I started posting them online, and then people were like, ‘This is amazing, I didn’t know anything about this culture.’ And I realized there was something important there that needed to be told.”
The exhibit was opened to the public earlier this month, and is supported in part by a grant from the Wyoming Community Foundation.
Hunter Old Elk, who is the assistant curator for the Plains Indian Museum at the Center of the West, said the exhibit brings to light a part of history that has been long forgotten.
“One in four, or depending on who you talk to, three in six, cowboys in the traditional West, were people of color,” she said. “That includes Black cowboys, indigenous cowboys, and Latino cowboys as well.”
Although McClellan’s work is in the spotlight, there are parts of the exhibit that showcase other, lesser-known aspects to cowboy culture. Ken Blackbird has been photographing Native American rodeos for years. Some of his work is also on display at the “8 Seconds” exhibit.
“It’s my interpretation of Native American cowboys and their horses,” Blackbird said. “That’s what I’m looking at. There’s a bonding element, that’s perceived in their culture.”
In addition to the exhibit at the Center of the West, McClellan has photographs on display at the Booth Museum in Georgia, and has shown at several other galleries across the country – although he said this is his first solo exhibit.
To him, celebrating Black cowboys is also a celebration of America, he said.
“The cowboy represents grit, he represents integrity, he represents independence, you know, hard work, all of these attributes,” McClellan said. “And I think associating Black folks with that identity, with that icon, elevates the culture, it elevates the icon, it just is good for everybody.”