Mustangs and Mexican Vaqueros: Terrains of Belonging and Exclusion in the Great Basin
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In this thesis, I explore the concept of belonging as it has applied to mustangs and people through time in the Great Basin of the American West. The mustang, or wild horse, is an animal that has existed on Western lands since the sixteenth century, yet its belonging on the rangelands is highly disputed among scientists, land managers, horse advocates, and ranchers. Each of these four groups advances compelling yet incompatible arguments about the belonging, or lack thereof, of the mustang on the rangelands of the Great Basin. I argue that the existing debates operate within a tradition of thought that is largely white and Anglo-Saxon, with roots in United States nationalism and Western technological science. As a result, mustangs and people traverse a Western terrain whose landscapes of belonging have largely been decided by one ethnically and racially exclusive subset. As a place that was unique for its ethnic and cultural diversity beginning in the 1860s, the Great Basin holds a history of displaced perspectives. I explore this history with the aim of discovering other ways of perceiving mustangs. In particular, I examine the attitudes of Mexican cowboys, or vaqueros, who worked closely with mustangs throughout the Great Basin from around 1880-1920. My research reveals that if Mexican vaqueros had a voice in today’s debates, they would add a unique perspective that considers mustangs as essential to their way of life. However, Mexican vaqueros do not exist in the Great Basin anymore. They no longer belong. White cattle ranchers and riders displaced Mexican vaqueros and other nomadic groups of people like Basque sheepherders beginning around the 1930s. I argue that with the displacement of people came the displacement of their perspectives and influences on the land. The story of vaquero displacement from the land carries into the present-day in the form of an overgrazed rangeland reflecting white American mustang management policies. Vaquero disbelonging also transmits into a present-day Great Basin in which the only prominent voices in discussing mustangs are Anglo American citizens—descendants of white belonging. At its heart, this project endeavors to form a culturally receptive understanding of what belonging-to-the-land has meant, not simply to animals like wild horses, but most essentially to people in the Great Basin.