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Author Betsy Gaines Quammen argues the historical myths of the West are destructive, even today

The West is rife with myths — from cowboys and gunslingers in a lawless wasteland, to the idea that land is endless and free.

All of that comes up in Betsy Gaines Quammen’s new book, "True West: Myth and Mending on the Far Side of America." It explores how she thinks those myths how distort the realities of the present-day West — and exacerbate polarization today.

Interview highlights

BETSY GAINES QUAMMEN: The never-ending frontier, endless resources, the cowboy myth, a rugged individualism, but also some of these myths that, you know, maybe needed a little bit more understanding, like the myth of homeland and the idea that manifest destiny, how that continues to linger. And so what I really discovered in, in setting out to write this book, is that there are so many Western myths that are defining to what it means to be an American, whether Americans are conscious of it or not. The fact that the West was the last place that white settlers came. It really is an enduring myth, and that sort of conjures this idea of the West still being a blank slate, even though we know the West has been inhabited by Indigenous people since time immemorial. So there are these ideas that really do continue to loom large and configure in what it means to be an American and, and you can really tie them back to these Western myths.

So I, I want to talk about the idea of, of these being myths, right? I mean, I think all myths they say are based in a shred of truth. All lies are based in a shred of truth. Like, I wonder if you think that's true here, too? Is there part of this that is true? Like the idea that's romantic or beautiful about the West? Like, is there something in there that, that, you know, you can understand where these ideas come from and why they endure?

GAINES QUAMMEN: That is really interesting, and it's something I've been thinking about a lot because I, I was just doing a joint dialogue. I was with a couple of other writers, one of whom is the poet laureate of Montana. His name is Chris La Tray. And he talked about the fact that he really sees the earth as turtle island that, that the earth is really sitting on the back of a turtle. And he pushed back on this idea of myth, like this is a truth to him. And so I thought that was really interesting in terms of how do we look at the idea of myths as stories.

And you know, one of the things that, that, we, we sort of talked about onstage is that there are myths that are toxic. And, you know, I did look at how Christian nationalists were building homelands in the Idaho Panhandle and how we have this idea of free land that really came out of, you know, early colonialist days where people could get Western land that was inexpensive. And now we know that people in different parts of the country can afford to buy places in the West in these communities. And we, it's caused inequity. We look at this idea of the West as hale and hardy, that it was salubrious, and we saw people coming into our communities that were very small, maybe tourist communities that, that ended up overwhelming health care and systems there.

And so I really do try to look at humans as a mythmaking species. We always are going to live among myths. What are the myths that need to be unpacked and sort of come to terms with? I mean, what myths are dangerous? And what are stories that are defining to cultures that really give them a place and a meaning and a truth? And, and I think that's been really interesting for me to think about and I was very grateful to be in dialogue with this wonderful poet Chris La Tray in Missoula, Montana.

That's so interesting. So you're from Montana, you're speaking to us from Bozeman, right. And this is if I'm not mistaken, like a place that has seen massive growth in the last several years, right? Like, are you seeing some of these myths about the West play out right now where you live?

GAINES QUAMMEN: Oh, my gosh. Yes. As a matter of fact, Bozeman has grown 17% in three years, which is absolutely remarkable. And I know that you all in Arizona are seeing this exponential growth as well. And this book is really about the, the, you know, the states between Arizona and Montana.

But there are people coming to Montana who have been lured by, by a very soapy, popular show called "Yellowstone." And they come to this and people are familiar with it. I think it was one of the most popular shows during COVID because it was sweeping landscapes and cowboy lifestyle and this idea of unbridled freedom, you know, all the myths. And so they came to Montana wanting to live like Kevin Costner on this, this show. And and so people were actually buying property site unseen because of these myths and these are myths that are perpetuated through Hollywood. They've been perpetuated since, you know, Hopalong Cassidy and John Wayne. And now the the latest iteration is Kevin Costner on "Yellowstone."

So housing is one thing and like affordability is one thing. But you also connect these, these the sort of repercussions of these myths to lots of things that are even much more serious, Black Lives Matter, you know, tearing down Confederate statues, January 6, Christian nationalism, like these sorts of things we're seeing happen in this country today. Tell us a little bit about that.

GAINES QUAMMEN: Well, I really wanted to write a book about how all these things connected because we went through the social justice movement, we went through pandemic, we went through increasing polarization, and I looked at how Black Lives Matter was uniquely manifesting in the West. One case in particular were the conquistador statues in New Mexico where social justice rallies, you know, sort of influenced or empowered by George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. These conquistador statues were targeted by social justice activists and there were two people, two protesters, shot in communities that were, you know, just speaking out in solidarity with George Floyd, and they became epicenters for the, the very polarization and, and these issues that we were seeing across the country.

So I want to lastly ask you about, I guess the, what's next question here? Like you're looking at history but also the way it's impacting modern day life and the mist of the West remain, right? And, and are playing out today. What are you watching for next in terms of the, the continued repercussions of this?

GAINES QUAMMEN: I have to say that I started writing this book, feeling a little bit angry and discouraged, and felt way more excited about things after having a chance to talk to individuals and communities and look at community resiliency and look at opportunities on a local level. Nationally, we seem to be in a bit of a mess. But I really found that I could talk to people who had enormously different beliefs than I did and we could find common ground.

And, and I'm not talking about doing that with Christian nationalists who are intentionally trying to take over communities, which is happening. But I'm talking about people who may be politically different but that there is real opportunity for both dialogue and for community health. And that gave me hope.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.