Exploring the Allure of Cowboy Culture and Identity In Wyoming

Grace Cannon
Grace Cannon

Are you intrigued by the impact of cowboy culture and the Wyoming identity? Do you embrace a certain cowboy lifestyle to connect with your roots, or feel disconnected and unsure of its authenticity? If you’ve grappled with the stereotypes and myths surrounding the cowboy identity? Join the conversation to explore the real essence of cowboy culture and how it’s deeply embedded in the Wyoming identity. Grace Cannon has a unique perspective shedding light on her definition behind the cowboy ideal.


My special guest is Grace Cannon

Grace Cannon, a theater artist and educator hailing from Sheridan, Wyoming, brings a vibrant blend of creativity and experience to the exploration of American identity. With a rich background in elementary education enrichment, special education, and leadership roles in theater education programs, Grace embodies a profound love for the arts and a strong commitment to community enrichment. Currently thriving as the lead teaching artist at WYO Theater in Sheridan, she passionately delves into the intricate layers of Wyoming’s identity, offering valuable insights into the global impact of cowboy culture. Grace’s journey of self-discovery and her deep-rooted connection to the Bighorn Mountain region provide a captivating lens through which to explore the complex interplay of cultural influences.


In this episode, you will be able to:

• Explore the rich history and enduring mystique of Wyoming’s cowboy culture.

• Discover the powerful role of theater in engaging and uniting local communities.

• Uncover the far-reaching influence and captivating allure of cowboy culture on a global scale.

• Differentiate between the historical myths and the modern reality of life in Wyoming.

• Understand the profound significance of land and community in shaping personal identity.


Discover the Impact of Theater

From a personal lens, Grace shares how theater has been instrumental in widening her perspective on Wyoming’s roots and the classic ‘cowboy narrative’. Promoting a broader thematic exploration, she exhibits how artistic expression can fuel a deeper connection with community and place-based narratives. Her work underlines the potential of theater in fostering a nuanced understanding of Wyoming’s diverse culture, its history, and its influence on American identity.


The resources mentioned in this episode are:

• Sign up for the Winds of Change newsletter by clicking on the link below.

• Learn more about Wyoming Humanities at ThinkWY.org.

• Learn more about the WYO Theater in Sheridan.

• Stay updated on upcoming podcast episodes by subscribing to the show.


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Welcome to Winds of change, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities. I am your host, Emy DiGrappa. Winds of Change is a unique focus on the people, places and history of Wyoming. Please sign up for our newsletter by clicking on the link in the description. Learn more about us at Thinkwy.org that’s T-h-i-n-k. wy.org.



March of each year is Wyoming Humanities Council, and I’m talking today about inspiration and empowerment. Wyoming Humanities Council serves as a source of inspiration and empowerment for women and girls, showcasing role models and stories of resilience, leadership, innovation and identity. And my special guest is Grace Cannon. Grace, a theater artist and educator, delves passionately into the exploration of American identity. She excels as a writer, researcher and teacher, embodying a strong ethic of service alongside her profound love for the arts.



Her diverse professional background spans elementary education enrichment, special education and leadership roles in theater education programs. Presently, she serves as the Wyo play lead teaching artist at the Wyo Theater in Sheridan that continues her commitment to enriching her community through the arts. Listen to her journey as she travels from Wyoming and back, learning and exploring all the things that make up her Wyoming identity. Thanks for listening.



All right, thanks, Grace. Thanks for joining me. And I want to introduce our audience to Grace Cannon. Grace, tell us about yourself. Well, thank you, Emmy, for having me.



My name is Grace Cannon. I live up in Sheridan, Wyoming, and I was born and raised here, but I spent many years off and away in different places like Chicago and New York and Berlin and found my way back here. So I work currently for the Wyo Theater as the lead teaching artist, building an initiative, an education initiative that we’re calling Wyo play. And I can talk more about that. But that’s just the cliff notes of who I am, where I’m from, what I do.



So I spent a lot of time thinking about my Wyoming identity, and I especially started thinking a lot about it when I left the state. I am deeply rooted here, and I’ve actually more recently realized that I’m deeply rooted, specifically in northern Wyoming. Wyoming as a square state has a lot of different aspects to it, and I don’t know all the corners of the state actually as well as I might like to or might previously have thought that I did. So I’m really rooted up here in the Bighorn Mountain region. And when I went away to school, when I graduated high school, I went to Vassar College in upstate New York.



And even though I had been quite anxious to leave suddenly outside of the square state of Wyoming, I was like longing for it and looking back on it. So I spent my undergrad researching. I got into american studies, and I made my focus the American west and the identity of the american westerner and the ways in which myth and history are intertwined, really, and how that impacts the way that people identify. So the sort of idea of the cowboy and how that resonates today always was really alienated by when I was growing up here, even though I grew up outside of Bighorn, Wyoming, really, and we had a few horses, and there was plenty about that that was really great to grow up around. There was something that struck me as false or shallow about some of what is spoused as the cowboy identity or the cowboy way.



But once I left Wyoming, I became the girl from Wyoming. And so suddenly those tropes, or whatever you want to call them, were easy for me to grab as a way to sort of stand out and be sort of a novelty in a place like Poughkeepsie, New York, to be from the least populated state.



I sort of found myself playing with those a little bit more, whereas previously I had sort of let them try to get away from them, I guess. Yeah. So I ended up writing a play for my project thesis for undergrad. And the play was called the Ghosts of Sheridan. Yo.



And it was a telling of the story of the attempt to form the state of absorca in the late 1940s, which would have included northern Wyoming, southern Montana, and even parts of western South Dakota. And to secede from Wyoming completely and form the 49th state at that time would have been the 49th state. And it was really a playful endeavor, but also maybe a little bit serious. Like, maybe some people were quite earnest about wanting to do that. The line between what was serious and what was playful was sometimes hard to determine in that the story of that.



So I wrote this play, which was part first person narrative of myself reflecting on what it meant to grow up in a place like Wyoming and the story of the attempt to form the state of absorca. And I’ve been thinking a lot about it ever since. After that, I was living in Chicago, and I’d also studied German studies in college, and I was like, where do these two things intersect, western American identity and German identity? And I found a character named Carl Mai, who’s a famous German author who wrote adventure tales set on the American frontier. And he was sort of a contemporary of buffalo bills, really.



And all of his adventure tales were. Maybe he wanted you to believe they were autobiographical. He wanted his audience to believe that. But the truth came out eventually that he had never been to the United States. He’d barely left Germany, even in his lifetime.



And so he’d really just had this very active imagination and maybe access to other dime novels and stories by people like James Fenimore Cooper and things like that. So anyway, I wrote an application. I was accepted as a Fulbright. I was given a Fulbright scholarship to go study in Germany for a year to really sort of look into Karl Mai, as well as the cultural effects of his fascination with the American west. There’s all these cowboy clubs and also so called indian clubs across Germany.



And so I got to spend a year searching out my own home, my own sense of place in a totally different part of the.



So in a lot of ways, my Wyoming identity has. I’ve investigated and spent a lot of time thinking about it in an academic way.



And then I eventually realized, what am I doing? I think I should go back there. I sort of found myself searching in these far corners for meaning, for my sense of place specific to the American west and Wyoming. And it began to occur to me that I was rooted here and that I would be able to find a lot of meaning if I came back here and began to make a life here. So that’s sort of the most recent phase of my life.



And my Wyoming identity has been so strong that I gave up the fight on that one and decided to come back. I love that. I really, really love.



So. Oh, gosh. Okay. It’s been a little while since I picked up that script. I should have mentioned, too, the narrator.



The play is structured. It’s kind of told through the lens of Kate, the historic Sheridan Inn. Up here, there’s a ghost that haunts the Sheridan Inn, and her name is Kate. She was a caretaker at the inn for many, many years. And at the time that I wrote the play, the Sheridan Inn was not renovated.



Now you can stay at the inn for many years there. It had fallen a little bit into disrepair. And you couldn’t stay at the inn, but you could still host parties. There was a restaurant and stuff. So I structured the play as told by the ghost of Kate.



And when I was able to actually, I did put it on in the Sheridan Inn. It was really fun. People were gathered there. It was very place based in that way. And so she sort of told a little bit of.



I took some artistic license and some imagining of how she might have told the story of the state of absorca. And I chose the Sheridan Inn as the place to set it in. Know one of the things that we love to say about the Sheridan Inn. Is that buffalo bill auditioned cowboys on the lawn of the Sheridan Inn for his wild.



We maybe make more of that than it actually was. Just for the sake of whatever. I don’t know. You could argue, I guess, why we do.



So. Kate was a character. I was a character. And then I had sort of written it for about three other actors to play different roles throughout it. And a lot of my source material were newspaper articles from the Sheridan press.



And so I had these actors sort of bring a lot of that part of that story to life. So there were, I think, probably five people. It’s written for five people. I just am so fascinated by that. And I also think that we should make another date.



Because I want you to read kind of that opening narration of how you set that up. I think that’d be really interesting part of your story. Yeah, absolutely. The last thing I want you to talk about. We talk about land and community identity, persistence and our ability to manage change.



And they almost always intersect. What is the most important. One of those themes that you look at when you look out on Wyoming and how it relates to you? Well, I will start by almost as a continuation of some of what I was talking about in relationship to my Wyoming identity. And how I sort of grappled with some of the stereotypes of the American west.



And how I sort of came up against some of those things. Because what I discovered as I moved throughout the world a little bit. And felt myself pulled back to Wyoming. Was that I was deeply connected to Wyoming. And in large part through things in particular.



Like my relationship to the land, the landscape, the natural world. And also the so. And again, I really am finding myself wanting to specify. You know, I just have really realized how big Wyoming is. And how a lot of my connection is really even more specific to the Bighorn mountain region.



So the land here, I grew up in the foothills, the bighorns. I grew up in a log house. We had 20 acres. We had three horses. At any given time, the Colorado colony ditch ran through our little piece of property.



And it was such an amazing, beautiful, open, inspiring space to grow up in. It really sticks in my mind. And it sort of takes up residence in my body. So no matter where I went in the world. I was just so deeply rooted through the very specific landscape.



That I was able to grow up on and in. And I feeling that incredible attachment to land. Of course, again, almost through academic study. Realizing the implications of that. Specifically around how we think about land and who owns it.



And actually the history in the American west of displacing people and particularly indigenous people. Right. And how this land, crow country, Sioux land, if I’m feeling this attached to it, what are the implications of that culturally and historically? There’s a lot to reflect on and answer for in many ways. So that’s been a big part of the growing up and out of Wyoming and then coming back to it in my mind, and then community.



So when I was in college, I also, in addition to ruminating a lot on western identity, I had this real love of performance and theater. And so this has been the twin interest, but also maybe just the medium of expression that I have found for myself. And so I’ve done a lot of different theater projects, I guess. So in college, I came home in the summers and did theater. And the community was so supportive here in Sheridan, even though a lot of people thought it’s a small town, there’s not enough interest for certain types of art, certain types of theater art.



I felt so supported by it, actually. And I thought that I was really perceiving, in some ways, a hunger for theater and art that was asking larger questions and exploring the. You know, diving deep into maybe place based, specific questions. Around what it means to live in Wyoming or the west, but also how that exists in the larger context of the whole world that we inhabit. A lot of art in Wyoming.



Whatever the medium is, whether it’s visual art or the written word, these tropes of the west are so prominent still. The cowboys, the livestock, the wildlife and all of that can be really beautiful. But there’s also more too, right? So I have sort of built a career since my college days out of trying to see how much interest there is and what value there might be through a medium like theater art. To exploring more different kinds of things.



Being something that’s alongside all of the other wonderful art that exists in Wyoming. So the community I found as a young person was actually really supportive and interested. And. And that was another thing that really drew me back, was, okay, it might be a small place, and culturally, there might be some things that are difficult. Whether that feels like it’s closed mindedness or narrow thinking.



There’s also other ways of being and thinking in that place. Just because there’s not a lot of people doesn’t mean there isn’t diversity of people. In many ways, I have felt drawn back to this place for both of the way, the land. I have a connection to the land as well as to the community here. And I guess the last thing I’ll tack on to that thought is mentioned, you know, as a young person wanting to leave Wyoming, very there.



There have also been plenty of times in my life where thinking about Wyoming has meant thinking about a lack of certain things that I longed for or yearned for. But that might be a human experience in some know and through my adult life, sort of like development of thought has been, that’s no way to really exist in the world in terms of defining a person, a group of people, a place, by what they lack, really coming around to asset based approaches to understanding what does exist in a place and how you can celebrate that, bring joy to that, bring a spotlight to that, has been a way in which I feel I’ve evolved myself over time. Wow, Grace, you have such great perspective. I often wonder about this because I live in Jackson Hole and we have this huge influx of Asians that come who are so in love with the cowboy culture. They’re so in love with the American west that they have rebuilt Jackson Hole.



I’ve seen this. Yeah. And so you experienced that same thing. Yeah. And I always want to know, because I know I’m in love with cowboy culture.



Well, I’m married to a cowboy. That might be it.



But no, I think there is this thing about freedom and that grit and determination and the things that the human spirit loves. I always think that must be the thing they love. I mean, their relationship to the land, their relationship to the animal, their relationship to the horse. Don’t you think that other countries find that so intriguing? Yeah, absolutely.



It’s intoxicating. Truly the ideal, right. The wide open places, the thought of pioneering in a place that’s difficult to live, persevering through generations of hardship. Absolutely. The freedom that comes with sort of being let loose in a place like that, I think is absolutely inspiring in many ways, in this way.



Right. The American west, in the figure of the cowboy, you have the manifestation of the American dream, right. I mean, if you think about westward expansion and the movement westward, you have a lot of the development of these. The life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the independence. Really find their idol in the cowboy.



That especially develops through things like the adventure tales of the late 18 hundreds into the 19 hundreds, and then movies. Right. I mean, that all sort of is really shiny and exciting, and it’s not totally unrelated to reality. Right. Like, to have the ability to visit a place like Jackson Hole or the Bighorn mountains.



There’s so many places throughout the state of Wyoming. It’s beautiful. And I have found that I love bringing people back to Wyoming. It’s one of my favorite things. And that was a way in which I maybe came to know Wyoming in a new way as well, is that I would bring friends, whether it was from college in New York or I worked in theater in Chicago, and I’d bring people back and I’d say, come know, or let’s work on a project and to sort of see the place through their eyes.



And this is just other Americans, right? This is just folks, maybe from the Midwest or the east coast who fall in love with it. It’s incredible. The grandeur is real and awe inspiring.



But then, yeah, you go further, further around the world. You go know Europe or Asia. I mean, I think that idea definitely transcends many cultural barriers in some ways. I couldn’t agree with you more. Well, that’s what’s so interesting about this love of the american west, that sometimes I hear people say, the cowboy is not real anymore.



That’s not our identity. There is no cowboys. There’s no real cowboys. We don’t have any ranchers anymore. But we do.



I mean, we do. And it’s not what it was in the 19 hundreds, of course, or the 18 hundreds. But people still love that lifestyle. They still love it. I mean, it is amazing to me.



Yeah, I’ve had horses. We sold all of our horses now, but the love of horses is real and the love of riding a horse. And, I mean, I can’t tell you my husband misses having horses every day. Absolutely. That connection to the animal is a connection to the land.



And what he loves most about it is that when you have animals like horses, it connects you to the land in a different way, and it connects you to the seasons, because you know how the seasons, like animals, change and you take care of them in their season, of what you need to do for winter, summer, spring, fall, whatever. Yeah, absolutely. I think many of these aspects are very real. What do we mean by real? Even to break that down a little bit is like some of what you’re talking about.



And even what I feel I’ve experienced in terms of my connection to the landscape, of my birth and childhood is spiritual. I think it’s a spiritual connection. I think it runs really deep in terms of who we are and the value that we find in ourselves, our identities and our lives and our connection to our world around us. And I want to just also say the flip side of it, too, is that a lot of what I think is so intoxicating about it is that it is an ideal, it’s an idea it’s an ideal, and in that way, much of it is mythic. So there is this other side to it, right?



Like you think about the trope of the cowboy with the cowboy hat that exists. Sure. But what’s more common, right? Like the guy with the baseball cap on the four wheeler. Right?



I don’t know. I say more common, but I just mean these things actually exist in different ways than these two dimensional images that we sometimes hold up. And that is the tension. The tension between sort of what is great about something that gets exaggerated into an ideal versus the other side of it, which is the reality, which is the challenges, which can either be like, I suppose, negative, but there can be beauty, too, and some of the harshness of the reality of things as well. But I think it’s really important to have a well rounded understanding of the ways in which some of these ideals that we hold up are just that.



Right. They aren’t fully the full picture. And I think that’s important because you can think about, like, take the ideal of the cowboy in our world now, right? If you want to think about that in terms of gender and how that plays out in that old story of the American west, there are ways in which we need to break apart these things to let the humanity in for everybody, whether that’s folks whose identity really exists outside of, say, the trope of the cowboy or even inside of it. I think that they can become really rigid even in their, like, intoxicating, intoxicating, you know, glory.



And we have to. We have to sort of, like, break some of these things apart so that people can see themselves, people of all different backgrounds and identities can really see themselves in a place, as part of a community, on a land. So I don’t know. I wanted to throw that in there, too. That’s the important flip side of what is so exciting about something like cowboy life or something like that.



No, I think you do just say that, and that was perfect, and that’s what needs to be said, because we do get caught up in the ideal, like you said. But that’s not the reality. Many times, more often than not, that’s not the reality, and it is for very few people in state now. So we have to remember that because it’s one of the challenges we face as a state every day and is that that is not our reality anymore. And how do we go forward?



Right? How do we fix that? Because it’s not just that we want to keep that ideal alive. The world around us does not want to give it up okay. Right.



Just like what you were saying when you go to other places and they have this love for Wyoming lore and the cowboy lore, and everybody keeps it alive, not just us, not because we’re living in a bubble or we’re just deceiving ourselves. We make a lot of money off of it. Okay. We do.



It’s true. And I think I want to say two things. I want to say one, there’s theories around myths and stories, right? And the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and the way our world works. I mean, stories live on because they’re serving a purpose.



Right? And so it’s just like you’re saying these are stories that we’re telling ourselves. Maybe, but it’s also just, it’s so persistent in american culture and maybe even more broadly, because it’s serving some purpose. Right. And you could dive into that in ten different ways and figure out sort of make meaning out of what the purpose is of something like those stories.



But I also want to say, I would argue the way in which these ideas become really mythic and pervasive is that I don’t know if they are ever fully true. Right. And what has become an idea of what a cowboy is develops out of million different tellings of a story that angled towards one sort of, like, cohesive through line, but forever, there’s been a million different ways to be that type of a person. Right. And I guess the cowboy is now becoming the one image that I am just ruminating on.



But there’s other ideas like that in sort of our western culture. But I would just argue, know what it means to live in Wyoming? What it means to be a cowboy. These things have always meant many different things. It’s never been one monolithic thing.



So if I find from my perspective that if there are folks that are like, well, it just isn’t that way anymore, and I wish it could be. I wish it could be like it was. My argument would really be that it’s never been simple. It’s never been simply this wonderful, great thing that we just need to get back to. Right.



So there is no getting back to it because it’s always been complicated to be a westerner.



We’ve always been living through change. So I think that there’s, like, even that is sort of either a misconception or a myth in itself, that there was a time when things were either better or simpler or easier to make money or. I don’t know. Right. But I think it’s always been hard.



Right. Isn’t that sort of what it means to come from pioneers who were headed west and stopped on the arid landscape of the Rocky Mountains. I think it’s always been challenging. You’re right. That’s a really great perspective.



So I think I have so much good material here to work with. And one thing I do want to do, when you look at your schedule sometime next week, I’d love to have you read your narrative out of your play. Okay, maybe you’re Kate, but reading that narrative, it would be a really cool part of this whole series that we’re doing. Great. I’ll go back and look and see what might be particularly interesting.



For sure, if it’s all right, I might say a couple of words on some of the work I’m currently doing, just because I think it really ties in in terms of change and how Wyoming changes or how we cope with.



I. I went to grad school, and I got a master’s degree in applied theater from the CUNY School of Professional Studies in New York. And I did it really explicitly to come back with this toolbox that I sort of built up there. And I wanted to come back and find ways to use theater as a tool for connecting people to each other and to their place.



That’s what I’ve really been engaged with the last couple of years. And actually, I wanted to say I was really enjoying looking through what you sent in terms of some reflection for coming on this podcast, because sense of place was what I focused on for my thesis, for my masters, and how, through theater, people develop. Can develop a sense of place and sort of what impacts that can have on them. I have found myself working with a lot of young people, but more and more people of all ages on theater projects that enable them to reflect on their identities, but also to really celebrate their place in the world. Right.



So one of the ideas when I was growing up that I had in my head that I think is pervasive as well, is that being a really rural state, if you’re thinking about arts and culture, you have to go to a city to find that kind of thing. And of course, when you go to a more urban place, you can find lots of different kinds of experiences. But I find that I really long to, through my work, develop the sense that culture is everywhere. Right? And you get to celebrate yourself through art and your people through art and your place through art.



And that is what it’s all about. You don’t have to go somewhere else for that. It’s already here. It’s already with us. I’ve been really working on that and trying to open up space in my community for more depth of thought and more diversity of thought and making sure that especially with the young people, that they feel they can really fully express themselves and see themselves in this place, right.



That they don’t have to leave to fully come into themselves. In some ways, that might be a very large task to set up for myself. But I do believe in art and theater to have the capacity to at least begin to break open some of those rigid boundaries.



And I think part of the task of that is to be a little subversive, too, right? People don’t like to be told that they’re doing something wrong or they don’t like different ideas that are very different from theirs to be really flown in their faces. So you have to find ways to allow people to enter in different places, to be able to open up new thoughts and new ways of thinking. And it’s an interesting challenge. I really enjoy it.



We get to do different education initiatives and programs through the Wyo theater.



And being subversive is its own sort of interesting goal, because sometimes I wonder if I’m flying completely under the radar and you wonder about the impact you’re making at all. But I do think theater is sort of powerful tool in that endeavor. So I just wanted to throw that out there as well. No, I think that’s great. I’m trying to decide if I want to use that because I’m going to be doing some grantee kind of spotlights.



And I know you’ve been a grant recipient, and I’m thinking, gosh, is that a better place for that? Because that’s really good how art opens up minds and how the importance of the cultural economy is. And that’s what we try and really stress when we’re looking at grantees and looking at grants and giving, when we’re giving a grant and supporting a project or program. How does know impact the.



So I’m just thinking about. So anyway, Grace, I’m going to be talking to you next week, so send me some days and times. I always do podcasting, Wednesdays, Thursdays. Okay. So just send me times you’re available, and then I’ll have you do a reading from your play.



Okay, fantastic. Well, thanks, Emy. And for my reference, too, what’s a good length in terms of finding something to read? Yeah, so I wouldn’t want it to be longer than like a minute or two. Got it.



Great. That’s help. Cool. Okay, awesome. Well, thank you so much.



This is fun. I know thank you, Grace. And we’ll be talking soon. Okay? Have a great day.



Okay, you too. Bye.



Thank you for listening. I’m executive producer Emy DiGrappa. Winds of change is brought to you by Wyoming humanities, our co hosts and all the people who generously share their stories and their time. For more information, go to thinky.org subscribe and never miss a show.