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Article of the Week

“How, Kemosabe”: Rowland Rider’s Symbol for All Seasons
June 12, 2017
Article of the Week
"How, Kemosabe": Rowland Rider's Symbol for All Seasons
Deirdre M. Paulsen

This daily feature is the introduction to a full article by Deirdre M. Paulsen that was published in our issue, 42:3-4. To read the full text of this article, follow the link below.

"How, Kemosabe," Rowland Rider would say, raising his right arm. Unlike a schoolboy raising his hand to ask a question, Rowland would lift his arm up from the elbow. This gesture was Rowland’s trademark of sorts, a declaration to the world of his knowledge of Indian ways. (Rowland said "Indian." The politically correct term Native American had not yet been advanced.) After all, Rowland, my grandfather, was the only white man in Kanab, Utah, who could skin a deer the way the Navajos liked it done. I can’t remember if it was with or without the ears. But it mattered to them and to him.

When Rowland was a young man in Kanab, Navajo braves would wait for him in his barn, a safe haven for them. My grandmother, Romania, would hide with her three young children under the bed in their nearby two-story frame house. When Grandpa returned, he would chide his wife, saying his friends only wanted food. He would let his children sit on Navajo laps; when my mother sat on their laps, the braves would stroke her thick auburn hair. In the security of her father’s presence, my mother enjoyed the braves’ attention. Grandpa displayed his Indian knowledge as proudly as the earth-toned blankets the Navajos gave him in trade. He had a right. After all, his father, John Rider, called by Mormon pioneer leader Brigham Young to establish Fort Kanab as protection against the Indians, instead had made friends with the Navajos and Paiutes. The Paiutes called John Pagamatoots, "Long Beard." John’s youngest son, Rowland, was Pagamatoots Unis, "Little Long Beard." And so Rowland’s standard greeting to one and all became "How, Kemosabe," always accompanied by a raised right hand.

The raised hand functioned as a symbol in other ways. It showed Rowland’s affirmation of life; Rowland welcomed new acquaintances, liked to be their center. And as a storyteller,₁ Rowland instinctively knew body language, knew the raised hand would draw an audience, would hold an audience’s attention while he spun his magic of the roll away saloon, a saloon on rollers that could be shuttled back and forth across the Utah-Arizona line to evade lawmen. Rowland’s magnetism extended to Zane Grey; the two sat around campfires on Bar Z rangelands, and Rowland swept Zane away with Western imagery and tales—Rowland the Western Trickster beguiling the Easterner. How much of Riders of the Purple Sage was Zane, how much Rowland? The raised hand broke down barriers, brought people in, held them there.

The hand greeting also served as a constant in Rowland’s life. It linked the past with the present. Even in Rowland’s later life of engineering and plastics manufacturing, when life became complicated with legal documents and lawsuits, there was always the simple "How, Kemosabe," with its accompanying raised hand, to keep life in perspective.

Not many kids in Barrington, New Jersey, where I was raised, had a cowboy grandfather. Now granted, Jersey is the home of the Lene Lenape Indians, but that’s where the Western hallmark of cowboys and Indians ends. No cowboys in New Jersey, and I never knew anyone who had met a Lene Lenape. But I had a cowboy grandfather with an honorary Indian name. I was the envy of Culbertson Elementary School.

I was in graduate school at Brigham Young University before I realized that Grandpa’s value stretched far beyond elevating me in the eyes of my classmates. Rowland was not only one of the few articulate cowboy storytellers who remembered the turn of the century, but he was also in a more exclusive subclass: Mormon cowboys. I started examining Rowland’s stories, looking at them through the eyes of a folklorist. They were good. Really good. And his gestures were good. All except for the "How, Kemosabe" with the raised arm. I thought, how clichéd can you get? His greeting was Lone Ranger, Hollywood. I doubted then that he had learned it from the Indians.

What I wanted was authenticity. So when I analyzed Rowland’s storytelling techniques in my master’s thesis, "Stories and Storytelling Techniques of Rowland W. Rider, Cowboy on the Arizona Strip in the Early 1900s," I wrote a lot about how Rowland stooped over and started pawing the ground like a buffalo when he told of a buffalo standoff and how he’d pretend to swing a lariat when he talked about knocking a horse’s eye out to save his life—but I never mentioned the "How, Kemosabe" or the raised hand. It wasn’t until years later that I realized there was a kind of authenticity in the greeting and the raised hand.