Group identity, according to American philosopher Steven Pinker, has a lot to do with our behavior. One of his books, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” talks about just that. Which set …
Group identity, according to American philosopher Steven Pinker, has a lot to do with our behavior. One of his books, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” talks about just that. Which set me to wondering about our identity.
Who are we?
Orange and black panthers, maybe. That’s a response that will resonate with everyone who’s attended or attending school here or had children who did/are enrolled, who cheered on the local sports teams. We’re the Panthers as opposed to the Cody Broncs or the Worland Warriors or the Jackson Timberwolves. Powell versus Cody. Powell versus ...
Well, maybe that’s not the whole story. Personally, my Wyoming existence from childhood to now, with home being almost equal distance between Cody and Powell, leaves me identifying as both Powell and Cody. A broncer or a panonc? The mind boggles at the image of claws and stripes on a bronc or hooves and a mane on a panther — which is just plain silly. Besides, whether from Cody or Powell, Meeteetse or Worland, we all share a wider and more influential group identity.
We’re Westerners, certainly. We all toy with identifying as real Westerners from the real West, not the West of the West Coast or even the West of Idaho or Utah. We’re the West of the mind and myth and reverence for the near past, of the wide-open spaces, of shootouts and range wars, of Indian genocide and the trappers’ rendezvous, of dime novels and wild west shows, of transforming desert to farmland, of taking what we want from the land — resources or entire species.
We know that we’re entitled “to make a living” no matter the cost to others.
Our parents and grandparents knew that, anyway. Maybe we’re not so sure.
What are we sure about? At our best, we’re people who respect and support each other. We keep our streets clean and give liberally to worthy causes and volunteer to help those in need while raising our children to be hard-working and well-versed in STEM subjects. We mostly want to know and understand our own history, too, to be readers as well as viewers, to be keepers of the best of our heritage.
What is that? Across Wyoming, we are either the descendants of struggling grand- and great-grandparents or share their heritage, their immigrant traditions. We are the heirs of people who engaged in relentless and bone-breaking work. They were young men and women who came with little but yearned for much, who were drawn to tent camps amid sagebrush and cactus — live with rattlesnakes and jackrabbits — who dreamed big, focused small, and turned camps into towns. They gave us our Panthers and Broncs.
That was who our ancestors were. But, again, back to us.
We’re changing and, in a sense, in the process of reinventing ourselves, hopefully keeping the best of what it meant and means to be a Westerner — the work ethic, the respect, the love of God and our neighbors. As for the rest?
Face it. Being a Panther or a Bronc, a Panonc or a Broncer, even a Westerner just isn’t what it once was.
The digital age, the smallness of our world, the question of resource use, the sharp division between conservatives and liberals, and all the other pressures forcing change won’t necessarily bring out “the better angels of our nature.” Not necessarily. But taking the positives from our heritage and making them our group identity, will.
We’re Westerners, I hope, in the very best sense of the word.