Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A Word on Gunsmoke and James Arness

I'm sure that most of us over the age of 40 can remember spending an hour every Sunday evening with James Arness, the main character on the Western show known as Gunsmoke. Janet Arness, his wife, weighs in on what it was like to live with this tall, powerful actor.

An additional bonus, brought to you by "A Word on Westerns," a weekly video commentary on the old west.

If you enjoyed this Gunsmoke video post on Western Magazine Digest, please take our movie poll up top on the right. Thank you!

Al Colombo

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Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Many Faces of Sedona’s Red West

Pristine desert skies frame natural sculptures of orange sandstone. Breathtaking panoramas of canyon buttes, gorges and color-shifting cliff walls are simply the background of your many favorite western movies. It is also an experience one can only fully appreciate by paying a friendly visit to the red rock region of Sedona, Arizona.

This unique and captivating place was once populated by several native peoples notably the Sinaguas, whose rich legacy and culture is prominent enough to be enjoyed today. Apache and Yavapai also inhabited the land before being moved to reservations. Not surprisingly, this coincided with the first European settlers’ arrival in Oak Creek Canyon in the 1870’s. In the years following the closing of the true ‘Old West’ era, the dawn of cinema had already arrived.

1923’s Call of the Canyon was the first Hollywood film to be produced in Sedona. All the major film studios soon built ‘Old West towns’ to produce westerns on a regular basis. Eventually, real towns replaced the artificial back lots, of which only a telegraph office still stands. Navajos doubled as various Indian characters and locals who knew the land and the life were employed in different capacities.

Lee Doyle, a rancher and guide from Flagstaff, became extremely instrumental to this burgeoning film industry as a location manager and scout, even accompanying famed writer Zane Gray to Oak Creek Canyon for narrative inspiration.

Bob Bradshaw, a photographer, scout and stuntman, came to the town in 1949, creating a movie set on his 140-acre ranch. Later, he even published a book detailing all the films he worked on. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the Bradshaw Ranch became an alleged hotspot for orbs, vortices and inter-dimensional portals(!)

Despite its signature red motif, the region always seemed to have been used to the greatest effect in monochrome. Against the background of some of the grainiest black and white horse operas lies a landscape unobstructed by buildings or power lines for miles in all directions that stole the show from Tinseltown’s brightest stars.

The Technicolor “post-golden age” saw less film activity with the rise of television and a general decline in popularity of western and rural-themed stories. Bigger- budgeted “revisionist” westerns and non-genre movies with peripheral detours to the Red Rock region still bring film crews today. Some latter-day examples include The Kingdom of the Spiders, National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Karate Kid and Dead Man.

But when that red sun sets on a majestic butte, it’s those classic cowboys who put that land on the proverbial map. Let’s round up some of the best and most interesting of the herd:


Director John Ford is inextricably connected to Monument Valley, the land in the Colorado Plateau bordering Arizona and Utah. The region was used to marvelous effect in 1939’s Stagecoach, the acclaimed western adventure of stage passengers travelling from Arizona to New Mexico. Following a lean decade of B-western obscurity, John Wayne, clutching a Winchester carbine, was given his big break at last. Though the majority was shot in Northeastern Arizona, utilizing his backdrop of choice, Sedona’s red rocks also creep up in the classic that spawned two remakes and earned Ford two Oscar nominations.

Billy the Kid

In the Forties and Fifties, Hollywood not only took gratuitous liberties with true life events and figures but also toyed with the public perceptions and reputations of those figures. Lawmen and the most cautious and restrained of gunfighters could be condemned as morally bankrupt while vengeful outlaws were lionized as misunderstood underdogs. With a story based on Walter Noble Burns’ book, The Saga of Billy the Kid, M-G-M cast Robert Taylor as titular character William Bonney. This rather poorly received 1941 version of the Kid’s life and exploits nonetheless used Technicolor to rewarding effect, at least in the outdoor scenes they chose to shoot in the outdoors.

Tall in the Saddle

This 1944 action-packed western from RKO Pictures had the Duke butting heads with locals in Arizona while trying to solve the murder of his employer. Tall in the Saddle was co-scripted by the great character actor, Paul Fix, who memorably portrayed Marshal Micah on The Rifleman, in addition to countless other roles. It also surprisingly teamed Wayne with sidekick extraordinaire Gabby Hayes for the last time.

Angel and the Badman

It may be a frequent item in your neighborhood dollar store or discount outlet but don’t let that put you off. Angel and the Badman is, without a doubt, one of John Wayne’s finest movies as well as the first in his own production company. There are fisticuffs and gunfights but the emphasis is mainly on the story with themes of redemption and a clash of cultures. An Old West movie town set was especially erected for the production near Coffee Pot Rock in West Sedona.

This is the first of a few movies Wayne made alongside Gail Russell and their off-screen love affair influenced their on-screen chemistry in the film. During production, they would often break away from the cast and spend the night at the Cottonwood Hotel. Today, a suite at the historic inn features complimentary in-room screenings of the movie, presumably acquired from the local dollar store.

Broken Arrow

“What took place is part of the history of Arizona and it began for me here where you see me riding.” In many tribes, a broken arrow symbolizes peace at a war’s end. It is almost prophetic considering Broken Arrow signaled a new era in Hollywood where Indians were henceforth portrayed sympathetically, if not multi-dimensionally. This fact raised the film’s profile and, in turn, gave it a controversial reputation to a certain degree.

Ex-soldier Tom Jeffords, played by James Stewart, enters into peace negotiations with Apache chief Cochise(Jeff Chandler) on behalf of the stage lines, army wagons and mail carriers. During his visits to the camp, he falls in love with and eventually marries a young Apache girl(Debra Paget). Today, most criticism concerns the eyebrow-raising age difference between those stars. The rest is, inevitably, aimed at the typical “Caucasians playing Indians” problem. Nevertheless, you can watch for Jay Silverheels as Geronimo.

Broken Arrow was later adapted for a short-lived television series in 1956.

Christopher Robinson

The Many Faces of Sedona’s Red West - part 2

Editor's Note: Be sure to tune in on the 2nd of June for part 2 of The Many Faces of Sedona's Red West!

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Photo by John Fowler on Unsplash

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Discover how the Civil War affected Texas

Texas State Historical Association

While Texas avoided much of the destruction caused by the Civil War, the last land action of the war took place at Palmito Ranch on this date in 1865. Texas seceded from the Union prior to the war, and approximately 90,000 Texans saw military service. Additionally, those who did not fight experienced commodity shortages, transportation issues, and, in many cases, the loss of loved ones.

Discover the stories of Texan participation in the Civil War with TSHA's Civil War in the Lone Star State eBook: click here!

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Sunday, May 5, 2019

Native Americans and Their Legends

The legends believed by the Native American tribes were / are very expansive, and involve everything from birds and animals to spirits and shadow beings.

With thousands of years of myths and story telling, our Native Americans have kept many of their legends alive even to this day. When we were visiting Alaska back in the 1990's, I became interested in the customs and stories told by the Tlingit (pronounced klink-it) and Haida tribes people we came in contact with. And for those who remember the TV series called "Northern Exposure," you may have also become interested in the ways of the their culture as portrayed by several members of the cast, where many of their tribal customs and legends regarding bears, ravens, eagles, foxes, and even frogs were brought to light.

I'm glad to see that the Native American culture has been kept alive in places like the California San Juan Islands, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Alaska, and other areas of the US. Statistics show that we still have 573 federally recognized American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes and villages in the United States. We need to honor them by learning something about their cultures and by remembering the sorrows that they have suffered through.

I have selected a few legends and stories that caught my eye when I was searching this topic online. I hope you will also find them interesting and informative.

The Choctaw tribes are known to share some very dark tales regarding some of the birds. Even the common horned owl, which they called Ishkitini, had a foreboding reputation. The Choctaw stories have it that Ishkitini is responsible for (or linked to) the deaths of men and animals. When the Choctaw heard the screech

The Hopi Indians

of the owl, they believed that a child of seven years or younger would die. If the owl hooted from the trees, it was feared that death was stalking their close adult relatives.

One variety of Paiute mythological figures from the dark side are called Nimerigar. They have been described as a race of small, but violent, magical people who are cannibalistic in nature.

But many legends among the tribes in America regarding birds, animals, and other creatures were more uplifting, or even humorous.

This Cherokee legend goes into great lengths to explain why rabbits have short tails. It seems that back when the world was young, tsi-s-du (the rabbit) had a very long bushy and beautiful tail. And he was always bragging about it to the other animals. Then one day, tsu-la (the fox) became very weary of hearing the rabbit's boasting, and he decided to put an end to it.

So, when the lake waters were frozen, the fox cut a hole in the ice and tied four a-tsa-di (fish) to his tail and waited there for the rabbit to come by. When the fox saw the rabbit come hopping over the hill, he he quickly dropped his tail into the cold water. The rabbit asked the fox, "what are you doing?" The fox replied, "I'm fishing."

The story goes on to some length as they banter back and forth until the fox pulled his tail out of the water to show the rabbit the fish that he had supposedly caught. The fox told the rabbit that he was going to take all the fish that he caught to the village and trade them for a set of combs. Then the fox left the rabbit alone at the cold frozen lake.

The rabbit then decided that he was going to try this fishing idea and grab some combs for himself. So he put his big long bushy tail through that hole into the cold water and stayed there all night, waiting to catch some fish. The next morning the fox came back and asked the rabbit what he was doing. With his teeth chattering from the cold, the rabbit said, "I'm ffffishing." The fox then asked him if he had caught any. When the rabbit tried to get up to see if he finally had caught any fish, he found that his tail was stuck in the ice. So he asked the fox to help him pull it out from the frozen lake.

So the fox, with a big grin on his face, got behind the rabbit, and with one big mighty shove, knocked the rabbit out of the ice and sent him sliding all the way across the frozen lake. But most of the rabbit's tail remained stuck in the ice, back on the other side of the lake.

And that's why to this day, tsi-s-du (rabbits) have such a very short tail.

The raven and Other Birds of a Feather

While the white people regard the raven with little esteem, many Native American legends lend credible importance to it. In some tribal cultures, the raven is regarded as a trickster, in the same way as the coyote is referred to. But other tribes tell of the raven's image as a hero. Among the south eastern Alaskan tribes, the raven is credited with finding water, and taking part in Earth's creation.

The Tlingit and Haida tribes in Alaska have provided many raven stories that depict him as talented and full of magic. And they give the raven equal status with the eagle, in many instances. Within these two tribes, their clan crests commonly come under one or the other of these two iconic birds.

The Pueblo tribes also have some birds in their legends, but identify animals such as the bear, coyote, antelope, and even mice as playing a part in great battles and other significant events.

Legends of America
The Kickapoo Indians recognized mythical figures such as Kehcimaneto, (a great spirit) and the Nenemehkia (thunder beings) who created violent storms with lightening and thunder, and were also called upon by the people to protect them from the Great Serpents. These serpents were common figures of their culture. One of which were the Manetoa, a breed of giant water serpents that could hypnotize people with their gaze, and then drown them.

The Nez Perce Indian folklore even includes battles between insects, as told in the story of a coyote punishing a yellow jacket and an ant for fighting. But their folklore also has many more traditional animals represented, such as the bear, raccoon, beaver, and in at least one story, a porcupine who punished a coyote for his greed.

Arapaho mythological figures
The Arapaho mythological figures included various spiders, powerful monsters, and spirits. But their symbol of the Thunderbird is one that many of us recognize today. To the Arapaho and most Plains Indian tribes, the Thunderbird was a huge bird of prey who also created thunder storms. The owl was another one of their predominant birds of lore, as it represented the winter season.

And it appears that it is the Blackfoot people who claim the honor of discovering the use of tobacco, their legend says that there were some medicine man brothers of whom the eldest had a vision and heard a voice telling him of a sacred herb to be found, and that he should pick it and burn it. So he followed the vision, found the herb and went home and tossed it into the fire, which then produced smoke with a pleasant smelling aroma. The second brother was told in a dream to chop up the herb and put it in a bag made of hide. He then also noticed how pleasant it smelled. Then a third brother was told in a vision to make some pipes out of bone. So he made four of them for himself and his brothers.

Then there was one more brother who's vision told him to put the herbs in the pipes, light them, inhale the smoke from them and let the exhaled smoke rise up into the clouds. The legend states that the brothers were also taught songs and prayers in their visions to go along with their smoking ritual. Then the brothers had more dreams telling them to spread the word about their new ritual to all their people.

Hmm... I wonder how long it took their big brother tribal council to levy a tax on their smokes?

Final Words

The more we delve into these Native American legends, the more intriguing they become. Their legends include accounts of creation and even the great flood which may seem to be pretty far out for most of us to accept or understand. But someone or something had to have put those thoughts and visions into the minds of these early inhabitants of our continent. Let's face it, even in this day and age, there are events and things that happen that we just can't quite explain.

Happy Trails,
Gary Miller

Additional Reading: Native American Indian Legends and Folklore

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