Asian American Cowboys and Native Erasure

By Guest Contributor: Dr. Beenash Jafri

In 2021, a prominent billboard featuring the photos of three Asian cowboys was erected in Norwalk, Los Angeles, next to the busy Santa Ana I-5 freeway. It was emblazoned with the declaration: “Asians have been here longer than cowboys.” 

The image was created by the activist coalition Stop DiscriminAsian (SDA) in collaboration with artist Kenneth Tam, and commissioned by For Freedoms. The supplementary analysis by prolific artist Astria Suparak drew necessary attention to Asian migration in the context of larger and longer histories of labor, empire and trade. It concluded by stating that: 

Asians are more American than apple pie, which is derived from an English recipe featuring a fruit that originated in Central Asia. And the iconic cinnamon and nutmeg flavors? Courtesy of Sri Lanka and Indonesia. 

The billboard and text were powerful public reminders that Asians are wrongly perceived to be perpetual outsiders to the US. Yet, a crucial fact was left by the wayside: the billboard was erected on Tongva (Gabrieleno) land. As freeway drivers glanced up at the billboard, they were invited to reflect on Asian American history – but absent in that reflection was any discussion of how it relates to Native peoples and their sovereignty. 

As freeway drivers glanced up at the billboard, they were invited to reflect on Asian American history – but absent in that reflection was any discussion of how it relates to Native peoples and their sovereignty. 

Asian exclusion from US history, politics and culture is inextricably bound up with the seizure and transformation of Native lands.  The absence of Asian solidarity with Native peoples is not just an ethical failure, but it stands in the way of dismantling ongoing racism, colonialism and xenophobia in this country.

SDA’s billboard is far from the only one to take up the figure of the Asian cowboy. In the last two years alone, there has been a small explosion of visual art and literature on Asians in the American West. Among these are Yowshien Kuo’s Frontier Romance exhibit (2021), Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari (2020), and novels such as How Much of These Hills is Gold (2020) by C. Pam Zhang, and Tom Lin’s The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu (2021). These works have been acclaimed by Asian and non-Asian critics alike for the nuance, complexity, and depth they have offered. They are a welcome contrast to the Dragon Ladies, Apus, and Kung Fu stereotypes of yore. Reporter Esther Yoon-Ji Kang said of Minari: This one is about us. This one is ours;” LitHub reviewer Lavinia Liang raises the possibility that novels such as Lin and Zhang’s may be pandering to a white gaze, but ultimately concludes that these works are fundamentally engaged in “truth-making.”

Representations of Asian Americans in early American history are not necessarily new. The canonical Asian American writers Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston are among many who have both addressed this history in writing published in the 1970s and 1980s. However, these contemporary works resonate in this particular moment. Current forms of racism and exclusion – particularly the heightened anti-Asian violence we have witnessed since the Trump years and into the pandemic – is premised on longstanding tropes of Asians as recent arrivals, perpetual foreigners, and invasive threats. By drawing attention to the historical record — to the Chinese laborers who immigrated to the West in the 19th century and helped construct the railroad — contemporary Asian American artists and writers reject the popular notion that Chinese people, and Asians more broadly,  are perpetually “fresh off the boat.”. 

The Asian American works noted above transcend political orientations and commitments. Yet, they deploy distinct strategies — from cowboy cosplay, to revisionist histories, to magic realism — to critique the absence of Asians in our imagination of the American West. Nonetheless, in almost all, there is a recurrent and frustrating pattern of Native erasure and marginalization. 

For example, in Silent Spikes, which Tam first installed at the Queens Museum in 2021, images of Asian American men playing cowboy abound. Tam examines Asian masculinities through this iconic figure of Americana as he speculates about the inner worlds and intimacies of the mostly unnamed Chinese workers who helped build the US transcontinental railroad. Tam’s exhibit recalls lost histories and silences, reflecting on the racialized and gendered exclusions and elisions of American national identity. While remembering the “hard” labor of railroad construction, he also imagines the “soft” moments of sensuality, intimacy and tenderness that might have characterized the lives of Chinese workers, inviting us to see Chinese workers as fully human rather than nameless, faceless laborers.

Tam’s exhibit is a thoughtful and moving reflection on American Western history and Asian American masculinity that pushes beyond hegemonic white American masculinity. But just like the SDA billboards, missing from Tam’s piece are the Indigenous nations. Absent are those who were most violently impacted by American settler expansion – such as the Paiute and Shoshone – who also participated in railway construction, forged intimate bonds with Chinese workers, and gave refuge to them. That erasure has a longer history; as historian Manu Karuka points out in his book Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad, the exploitation of Chinese workers enabled Indigenous dispossession while simultaneously developing the overseas expansion of the US empire. 

The western genre these artists draw on is deeply entangled in US colonization and anti-Native violence. Early Western literature, in the form of dime novels, incorporated fictionalized accounts of real-life figures such as Buffalo Bill Cody, a Pony Express rider. Cody’s traveling Wild West Show, which also popularized the infamous pairing of “cowboys and Indians,” later provided the raw material for early films. Contemporary Westerns enable audiences to relive and repeat this fantasy of 19th century US settler experiences and feelings. 

When Native peoples do appear in these Asian American works, they most often remain in the background or constitute a coterie of oppressed peoples, one group among many. In so doing, these works wind up repeating the trope of dead, dying or disappeared Indians that characterizes the western genre. The epigraph of Zhang’s novel How Much of These Hills is Gold, for example, riffs on Woody Guthrie’s popular folk song: “This land is not your land” . While I initially interpreted this as a declaration of Indigenous solidarity — another way to say that we are uninvited visitors on Native land — How Much’s plot suggests that Zhang is referring to Asian exclusion from white settler claims to land. 

In the book — which follows two queer and non-binary siblings traversing the US West in the 19th century — a community of middle-aged Native men–boarding school survivors find and raise an orphaned Chinese child who later states “I’m from this very territory”. The author’s choice to have a character lay claim to land in this way is an example of indigenization, which is a way of making oneself Native and legitimizing claims of belonging and ancestry. Indigenization is different from Native practices of kinship, which have included more expansive ways of imagining community and connection that contrast with colonial modes of kinship that are patrilineal and heteronormative. This Chinese character’s indigenization does not incorporate him into Indigenous community, but is instead the catalyst for his own claims to land as a non-Indigenous person.

In this sense, Zhang both repeats and revises a familiar genre theme of non-Native adoption here, one that we see across Hollywood films such as The Revenant, Dances With Wolves, or Shanghai Noon, in which non-Natives become incorporated into a tribe via adoption or marriage. Zhang’s queer/trans feminist diasporic revision is different from and more compelling than these, which overwhelmingly depict the hyper-masculine trope of settler men conquering wild landscapes and people. By contrast, the novel’s protagonists relate to land/environment in dynamic and embodied ways that connect them to Native peoples. That affiliation is symbolized most acutely by the tigers and buffaloes roaming the land in the book’s fictionalized west, each signaling the naturalized presence of Asians and Native peoples.

But tigers are not indigenous to the US West, and the narrative does not articulate the very different stakes for Asians and Native nations laying claim to land. Whereas Zhang’s protagonists present a largely individualized relationship to land, based on embodied affects and sensations—and, perhaps, a vague sense of blood memory passed down through their indigenized father—Native ways of knowing and relating to the land have a far longer history, developed across many generations

Chung’s Minari is different from Zhang’s book and Tam’s art insofar as it makes no historical claims to belonging. Set in the 1980s, the film centers on a South Korean family settling down in rural Arkansas. Minari is not, on the surface, a Western — above all else, it’s set in the South. However, it recalls many key features of the Western: a young family trying to eke it out amidst harsh conditions, and making a new place their own by planting and harvesting crops that remind them of home. The isolation and seclusion of rural life. A new frontier and new beginnings. Wide and empty landscapes, full of danger, promise, and beauty, awaiting cultivation. 

The film’s title, Minari, refers to the water celery seeds (oenanthe javanica) that grandmother Soon-ja brings with her from Korea, and plants near a creek. Following a tragic fire, the family starts anew by harvesting minari—the only crop to have survived. It is, in other words, a metaphor for the family’s resilience. But I couldn’t help but read this another way as well. Just as white settlers made Turtle Island (North America) their own by planting local crops and giving British names to streets, cities, and towns, the family in Minari makes their farmland their own through this plant indigenous to Asia: an Asian settler claim to land. More specifically, this is an instance of terraforming—of transforming the land to meet settler needs. Over many decades, settler practices of terraforming have drastically impacted Native access to their own lands.

At the same time, there is a doubleness to this claim. Just as Asians figure as invasive, threatening bodies, the US Department of Natural Resources considers minari to be an invasive species. So the Asian claim to land that the film presents upsets the racial underpinnings of white settler claims. But what does this critique do or mean for Native sovereignty? Is the critique about exclusion from the US—an implicit request for expanding the terms of formal and informal inclusion—or is it a critique of white settler colonialism writ large? 

My observation of Native erasure and displacement is not so much a plea for incorporating Native peoples or sovereignty into Asian representations as it is an invitation to reflect more deeply the colonial foundations of the US, past and present. 

My observation of Native erasure and displacement is not so much a plea for incorporating Native peoples or sovereignty into Asian representations as it is an invitation to reflect more deeply the colonial foundations of the US, past and present. 

The westward expansion of the United States and theft of Native land was violent and bloody, sanctioned by policies of genocide and extermination, underwritten by the belief in Manifest Destiny. The conquest of the US West, moreover, was not just about removing and displacing Native peoples, but about erasing Native ways of knowing and understanding land, and supplanting these with colonial epistemologies. As Anishinaabe writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes it in As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance, “Indigenous bodies don’t relate to the land by possessing or owning it or having control over it. We relate to land through connection—generative, affirmative, complex, overlapping, and nonlinear relationship”. 

Given that Native genocide and dispossession is foundational to the making of the US, it seems only logical for Asian American activism to challenge the full breadth of ongoing settler colonialism. There is already precedent to this. Though it can never be assumed or taken for granted, cross-racial solidarity has long been a hallmark of radical Asian American activism: there’s a long tradition of Asian American art and activism oriented towards building relationships and expansive social movements. Asian American activists in the 1960s, for instance, explicitly framed their own work alongside movements for Black liberation as well as global struggles against US imperialism. For Freedoms, in fact, followed in that tradition when they collaborated with SDA to convene a July 2020 panel on anti-Black racism and police brutality, signaling their commitments to solidarity work. Let’s extend that tradition towards increased reflection and action around how to frame anti-racist and anti-xenophobic criticisms in ways that meaningfully address Native sovereignty.

Dr. Beenash Jafri is an assistant professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at UC Davis, and a faculty affiliate with the Cultural Studies and Performance Studies graduate groups. She holds a PhD in Gender, Feminist & Women’s Studies from York University.

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