The Vanishing American

The Vanishing American is a 1924 film and book by Zane Grey about the cruel and inevitable clash of conflicting cultures.

History, as portrayed in this film, has been a succession of conquests of stronger races over weaker ones. As played out on the stage of Monument Valley, long ago, tribes of Indians defeated the ancient cliff dwellers; then came the Europeans to conquer the Indians.

The film picks up at the start of WWI and the Indian’s horses are wanted for the war effort.  After first being exploited for their naiveté by an unscrupulous horse broker, an honorable Army Captain convinces them with the help of the white school teacher to not only donate their horses to the war effort, but to enlist and fight for their new country.  The Indians embrace this challenge but the world they return to doesn’t reward them for their service.

I can’t help but see parallels in the themes of this story and the fate of the working Border Collie.  History is marching on and we’re leaving the agrarian lifestyle further and further behind.  America was never a big sheep country and we’re becoming less of one every day.  In a piece appropriately titled The Vanishing American, Derry Brownfield documents the tide going out for the American agrarian industry:

When I was growing up on the farm, there were very few farm families that didn’t have a few chickens, a few hogs, a few cows and maybe some sheep, ducks or geese. We grew most of our vegetables and all the feed for our livestock and poultry. The typical farmer was completely self sufficient. The chickens and eggs paid for the food items that were not grown at home: flour – bananas – coffee – sugar – salt. The hogs and cattle made the farm mortgage payments and paid for other farm expenses and living expenses.

Economies of scale, government handouts, mechanization, fashion, and specialization have lead to the death of the versatile farmer and the versatile farmer’s dog.  Changes in the market also make it a steep uphill battle to preserve existing family ranching and farming culture, let alone grow it to a level that can be said to maintain a large enough Border Collie gene pool.  It’s not that there aren’t enough working and trial people to justify them breeding their own flavor of Border Collie, it’s that the prevailing opinion from this group is that they want to be the only ones breeding Border Collies.

Since 1980, 32% of the nation’s sheep producers, 41% of the beef producers, 81% of the dairy producers and 91% of the hog producers have been forced out of business.

In the story, Indians have a technic–an object of technology that is well adapted to a particular task–that is still valuable in a modern world.  They are also presented with a war that is perhaps greater than their own struggle to maintain a static cultural identity.

The Border Collie is likewise a technic that is well adapted to a particular task that is swiftly becoming obsolete and a valuable tool in new applications.  The working community being asked if they want to join in and be relevant contributors to the new “wars”–in this case activities, sports, and new off-ranch jobs–being “fought” with Border Collies or if they are satisfied to build walls and exist as living museums on their reservations.

Jim Thorpe, football star

Critics have contended that The Vanishing American is a commentary on the life story of Jim Thorpe, and like Thrope’s life story, it doesn’t end well for the Indians despite them making a valiant effort to fight for America in WWI.  The crucial difference today is that there’s no stigma against working Border Collies, no racism or breedism that prevents us from appreciating their accomplishments.

If anything, my own vision of the ideal Border Collie matches Jim Thorpe.  He was a hybrid of several Native American and European bloodlines, born on the reservation but raised in the modern world.  His first job was working on a horse ranch, but he would go on to be the most versatile athlete America, if not the world, has ever seen.

As a teen, he excelled at the high jump, track and field, football, baseball, lacrosse, and even ballroom dance.  He played football under the famous Pop Warner while at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and lead his team to a national collegiate championship almost single handedly.  He played running back, defensive back, place-kicker, and punter.  In that season he scored 25 touchdowns and 198 total points.

It was during that season that Thorpe put an end to Dwight Eisenhower’s dreams of football success when Eisenhower busted his knee in a failed attempt to tackle Thorpe while playing for Army.  The future president said of his rival:

There are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe.  He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.

He won Olympic Gold in the Pentathlon and Decathlon, and was hailed by Czar Nicholas II of Russia as “the greatest athlete in the world.”  He won the Amateur Athletic Union’s All-Around Athletic Championship.  He played professional baseball in the major leagues, professional football and guided the American Professional Football Association into becoming the NFL, and he even played professional basketball.

He was called the most versatile athlete in the modern era, if not ever, and can that same honor not be given to the Border Collie?

Jim Thorpe, baseball star

The sheeple are essentially demanding that while they’re willing to send their dogs off the reservation to compete in silly activities like dog sports or goose patrol, SAR or pageants, but they don’t want the dogs bred for those activities by people involved in those activities.  They contend that breeding a dog for anything other than stock work won’t create the best stock dogs. And this isn’t a point even worth debating, because no one is asking people with stock or who are in stock sport, to use dogs bred by someone else.  And despite the continued decay of American agrarian culture and demand, no one is even contending that the sheeple shouldn’t breed their own dogs on their own standards.

This position of primacy and exclusivity of breeding rights  is only held by the sheeple.  This is their reservation, and I suspect this is going to play out long term just like the conquest of the American Indian did.

While it’s compelling to look at the downfall of Jim Thorpe as the result of latent bias against the Indians, racism, or some great conflict in culture, I don’t think history bears that out.  Jim Thorpe was given every accolade they could throw at his feet and that some tried to profit off of his success without paying him his due is not unique to Native Americans.  The greatest insult to him was by the IOC (decidedly NOT an American institution) when they stripped his Gold Medals over his accepting money to play baseball earlier in his career.

Jim Thorpe was undone by the Great Depression and his own alcoholism, the later of which could be easily ascribed to his Irish and Native DNA.  A predisposition for alcohol intolerance and addiction.  Will the working Border Collie community be undone by their own DNA as well?  Do they have it in themselves to change or will they become morbidly obsolete and irrelevant?

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.