Cowboys and East Indians
“Cowboys and East Indians”
“Cowboys and East Indians” is from Nina McConigley’s debut collection of the same title (FiveChapters Books, 2013). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. She lives in Wyoming.
McConigley said this about her piece: The story started with the llama. In high school, I did a summer science program. To do our field research, we went up into the mountains of Wyoming, and instead of pack horses, we had pack llamas that carried all of our research equipment. When we’d get into camp at night, they would be in a makeshift corral, and they would eat and drink, but show very little other emotion. They seemed curious about our little crew, and were, if anything, very pleasant. They never spit and seemed indifferent to the whole experience.
But what got me about the llamas was how out of place they seemed. In Wyoming, I am used to all sorts of wildlife – bison, deer, antelope…but these llamas were just so…well, exotic.
Years later, I was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming. I taught section after section of Freshman Composition, and after teaching for three semesters, I hadn’t had one non-white student. Then that fall, a student came into my class who looked Indian. We talked a bit, and she told me she had been adopted from India, and knew nothing about it. She had no desire to go back, and she had been raised on a working cattle ranch. She wanted when she graduated, to go back and ranch. She was a great student, and most of the time we talked about coalbed methane, as her family had given up the mineral rights to their land. But I remember another student talking to her one day, and saying, “You are so exotic looking.”
When I came to write the story I thought about the word exotic, and all the ways it comes out in the story depending on the character. Faith, Wyoming, the exotic animals, the Indian students, cricket, food, the Diwali ceremony – and of course, the llama, are all exotic. I wanted to look at both sides, and see if I could write a story about how hard it is to fit in, even if you look like you belong. What shapes you – your personal history or geography? Or is it race or ethnicity? I think about identity and connection a lot, as perhaps as someone who is bi-racial, I see identity as very mutable, very hard to define.