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Robert Staffanson On What It Means To Be A Real Cowboy
April 29, 2023
Robert Staffanson On What It Means To Be A Real Cowboy
Not the kind of wrangler you see on 'Yellowstone': Staffanson, a Montana ranch kid, re-invented himself twice—as symphony conductor and Native rights activist
Robert Staffanson left Montana to be a symphony conductor. He returned to the West because he loved the people and the land that shapes them. This photo of Staffanson (foreground with hand raised) and rancher friends on a cattle roundup appeared originally as part of a profile featured in Look magazine. Photo courtesy Robert Staffanson
EDITOR'S NOTE: Robert Staffanson originally adapted this essay for Mountain Journal from his memoir Witness to Spirit: My Life with Cowboys, Mozart and Indians. Staffanson died in late April 2019 at age 97. Staffanson's piece is poignant and timeless, for it explores what he saw as the reality, mythology and values of ranchers in the rural West.
By Robert Staffanson
When my Mother was in advanced age I asked her what she felt was the biggest difference between the conditions of her youth (she was born in 1884) and the then-present time (1980s). She said “community."
She grew up a first generation American in a group of immigrant Danish people grateful to be in a new welcoming country. They came to the West. Think of it: Cowboys with Scandinavian-influenced accents and mannerisms.
My Mother and Dad were cattle ranchers. Standards of behavior and cooperation were embraced and respected then, giving a sense of security and well-being to people facing uncertainty. Those who focused only on themselves, contrary to the myth of the lone, independent, maverick mountain man, did not survive.
In the old days, people remained settled and families were more intact. Mother missed that. I know cowboys because I was one, part of my identify is rooted in the art of horsemanship and the parlance of tack, the special relationship that forms between rider and mount. The shared trust, the intuition, the mutual pride in getting somewhere together or completing a task. It can be a difficult thing to grasp for those who have never bonded with a horse.
The kind of cowboys I was raised to revere, as a kid who learned to ride shortly after I took my first walking steps, bore almost no resemblance to those icons of machismo manufactured by Hollywood. It seems like there are so many cowboys out there today who put on a hat and boots only for effect.
"The kind of cowboys I was raised to revere, as a kid who learned to ride shortly after I took my first walking steps, bore almost no resemblance to those icons of machismo manufactured by Hollywood. It seems like there are so many cowboys out there today who put on a hat and boots only for effect." —Robert Staffanson
Real cowboys didn’t have to boast about themselves. They didn't need guns to be tough. They didn't find excuses for their own failings or blame others—including the federal government—when things went wrong. They bucked up and let their own accomplishments speak for themselves. Those prone to bragging were immediately treated with suspicion, their obvious insecurities revealed. No self-respecting cowboy would ever beat a horse or dog or wife or child, or stand in silence if a beating were being meted out in order to violently force the victim into submission. If you let it happen and said nothing, you weren't a man. You were a coward. The cowboys in our circle saw women as equals not objects or trophies.
Real cowboys also chose to work for good ranchers who didn't abuse the land, for nature is unforgiving to those who believe they are not beholden to the constraints of soil, grass and water.
Men who earned reverence in the communities I knew, like Sidney along the lower Yellowstone River and later in the Deer Lodge Valley where we ranched, were not ever the loudest in the room. They did not strut with spur-jingling swagger, nor did they bully or intimate others.
Almost forty years after my Mother’s lament, fragmentation and a diminished sense of community have deepened our problems as a nation.
Rose colored glasses aside, I believe the real quality of life has deteriorated over my lifetime even though we are living longer, are said to be wealthier, more physically fit, and bombarded with more information. Yet why then is there this pervasive sense of emptiness, division and disconnect?
While the rural West is often portrayed as a province of welcoming isolation, attracting asocial types, let us remind that today it has among the highest suicide rates in the nation due to people feeling despondent, disconnected and hopeless.
Our society’s dark side, as well as that of other nations, has been emerging for some time. Fear, hatred, anger and aggression have been growing without enough moral constraints to contain them. Unfortunately, no leaders have emerged with sufficient influence and prestige for push back.
Now we have politicians who claim to identify as cowboy mavericks. The cowboys I knew would have found that amusing. When the time came for real work to get done, and reliable people counted upon, these pretenders never would have been taken seriously. Most would have viewed them as nuisances.
We are in for a rough ride ahead. America needs more than ever to return to the roots of community where political affiliation doesn't matter.
"No self-respecting cowboy would ever beat a horse or dog or wife or child, or stand in silence if a beating were being meted out in order to violently force the victim into submission. If you let it happen and said nothing, you weren't a man. You were a coward." —Staffanson
Here I am, a native Montanan, in that last phase where my rancher Mother was, when the list of your contemporaries who have passed is long and almost complete. I think more about the time still in front of my Grandsons than what the years can still give me.
Anyone who has aged into their eighties and beyond is often asked to what they credit their longevity. Of course longevity is dependent on a wide variety of things, including the luck of genetics, but my short answer is one word: “passion”.
Deep passion for creative work, for family and friends—for life itself.
Given all the good attributes for longevity when it involves meeting life’s challenges in creative and altruistic ways, it’s easy for some to become focused on the superficialities of life.
Some of those superficialities are accruing wealth in order to hoard it, the constant seeking of personal pleasure over caring about the comfort of others, and engaging in self-indulgent behavior.
None of these guarantee a better world; they are not pillars in the kind of community to which my Mother spoke, nor of the kind of passions that in old age are rewarding, meaningful and purposeful. I believe the most important ingredient in spirit-elevating passion, the kind we desperate need more of now in our country and the West, is love.
Some men, the stoics, taught or trained by the example of other stoics to repress their feelings, cannot allow themselves to speak of such love because they believe it is an outward expression of vulnerability. The love I mention here is about striving to achieve peace within oneself and embracing an openness to accept faults and differences in others.
Not sentimental or nostalgic love, the articulation of which comes through the pick-up dashboard in a Country & Western song, but an intense feeling of connection to all people and all life, a desire to “make things better” that is consistent with one’s talents and gifts voluntarily contributed. For this, there is no one political party or prevailing religious denomination that trades better over another in this kind of love.
I recently lost a wife of 71 years. When we married, such an amount of time was past the life expectancy of most Americans and well past the longevity that could ever be dreamed of for the vast majority of people living on earth, then and now. Beyond the grief and emptiness of loss—it does not get easier with age— Ann’s passing causes me to reflect on all the qualities of love that had grown over more than seven decades and how it affected “success” in difficult endeavors together.
Bob and Ann Staffanson in the West they loved. Despite a distinguished partnership in classical music, homesickness for Montana brought them back to the mountains and plains.
Often there is a key piece in any successful enterprise that doesn’t show up on the masthead or in the reports about a person’s “accomplishments,” but if taken away everything weakens. The turning points are not events but the people of character present in our lives—whom we have attracted— when turning point moments arrive. They help us understand what kind of character exists within ourselves and if they are being honest with you, and you with yourself in really absorbing what they have to say, you choose what is right over thinking only about the self-interest of wealth, seeking instantaneous pleasure and me-focused gratification. I am not saying that wealthy people cannot be happy. I am saying it can desensitize a person to the suffering of others.
My wife was that key piece of grounding throughout our life together, from my youth as a rancher’s son, though the years of building the Billings Symphony and subsequently leading the Springfield, Massachusetts Symphony where I was given the nickname "Cowboy Conductor," through the yearning to return home to the West but give up what we had created in the East, through the nearly complete loss of my hearing at midlife and then founding an organization that had the wishful hope of advancing understanding, appreciation and respect for native peoples.
My native friends, whose struggles are unlikely to register with a president focused only on “winning” and with little regard given to the “losers” in his deals, have taught me to reflect on what living a rich life means.
With my wife, I may have been a central protagonist—with the focus on my career being an unfortunate reflection of the times— but Ann was the anchor. Western women, whether in tribes or settler societies, were always the backbones of communties. Not guns, or masculine bravado or attempts by men to impose their will upon other people and landscapes. Women are who held humanity together. They do not show up, except anecdotally, in the incomplete pages of history in the West but we owe them eternal homage.
Staffanson and his friend, the late Joe Medicine Crow who was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama for heroism displayed during World War II and contributions to preserving the culture of the Crow people. When this photo was taken at Crow Agency, Medicine Crow and Staffanson had 194 years of life as native westerners between them. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Ann provided, as so many in her sisterhood did and do, a sense of safe haven that was filled with love. This is the priceless quality of community. Without it the overwhelming insurmountable obstacles we faced would have been just that, and they would have broken me. With love they were manageable. We trusted each other. We were a team.
Love for others tempers irrationality, impulsiveness and inclinations to always put self before community. Love that focuses only on self indulgence produces narcissism and a constant desire for self-adulation.
In many ways I pity the president for it is clear what kind of love he knows in his life. And I pity those surrounding him, who reveal their own character by enabling the bad behavior of a person leading the free world toward unspeakable risk and danger. I wonder if the president has ever experienced the humbling essence of love?
For Ann and me, love connected us as nothing else could for a long lifetime. Mutual love that would endure whatever happened. It shaped our lives, liberating us to continuously grow even as we moved through old age. It provided a foundation to meet challenges and to change transformationally. Love that flows between individuals is the glue that holds communities together.
Love is what heals pain.
While there have been many benefits of living in a technology-abled world, I believe the down side of change—as manifested in the thumb skills of one man’s addiction to Twitter— predominates. Standards of civility have deteriorated drastically. Elements of vulgarity and bigotry have developed with reinforcement from people in the highest levels of influence. Positive norms of behavior are being challenged and conduits of society breaking down from conflicting influences, including, ironically, “social media.”
We are in a time of transition, the kind currently lacking with coherent leadership, to guide us when it is deeply needed. Fragmentation, social unrest and increased aggression have become a worldwide phenomenon. What the world desperately needs now is more love congregating in community.