Historical Context

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The Utes The people known as the Utes once inhabited most of the land of present-day Utah (which takes its name from the Utes), Colorado, and New Mexico. They were a hunter-gatherer society and were comprised of seven different groups, or bands, in ancient times. They lived in temporary shelters...

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The Utes
The people known as the Utes once inhabited most of the land of present-day Utah (which takes its name from the Utes), Colorado, and New Mexico. They were a hunter-gatherer society and were comprised of seven different groups, or bands, in ancient times. They lived in temporary shelters and moved with the seasons, following the animals and the harvesting time of the wild fruits and nuts that were their staple foods.

The history of the Utes is filled with their struggle for land and their desire to maintain their traditional living. The Spanish were the first Europeans to make contact with the Utes in the 1630s. With the Spanish came horses, a factor that would change the lifestyle of the Utes. Horses allowed them to hunt buffalo, evade their enemies, transport goods, and go farther to hunt for food. Because of these advantages, the Utes ceased their practice of breaking the tribe into smaller family groups, and, in its place, they created larger, more permanently settled units that were then ruled by powerful leaders.

Amidst battles with the Spanish as well as intertribal battles with other Native Americans, the Utes fought to maintain their rights to food and land. With the approach of the white pioneers, the trappers, the gold miners, and the inevitable U.S. military, the Ute people and their land began to dwindle. Between 1859 and 1879, the Ute population decreased from an estimated eight thousand to two thousand people. The cause of this decrease was blamed on disease and a lack of food. Ute land was taken away in huge chunks. By 1868, the whole tribe was confined to the western third of Colorado. In 1873, they were forced to concede another fourth of their land. In 1880, the tribe was living on a reservation that measured fifteen miles wide and one hundred miles long. Having access to smaller and smaller areas of land, the Utes eventually became dependent on the military, who rationed food to them.

Education of Native Americans
Up until the 1960s, numerous Native American children were taken from their homes and their parents and placed in boarding schools to be trained in the “new ways” of American white culture. Often under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), social workers, who may have believed they were doing the right thing for these children by assimilating them to modern society, were in fact making many of the children miserable. Many of these children died from diseases against which they had no natural immunity. Some people claim that other children died of heartbreak. Even the children who survived the schools often discovered, upon graduation, that they neither fit into their old traditional way of life, because they had changed too much, nor into the white society, because they had not changed enough—white people still looked at them as nonwhites, no matter how well educated they were.

Not all schools were this miserable; some schools were even established on the reservations with the blessing of the tribes. There was also the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which encouraged the teaching of Native history and culture in BIA-sponsored schools. Much later, in the 1970s, after a period of cultural upheaval in the United States that included the fight for civil rights among the Native American population, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975 and the Education Amendments Act of 1978, which together gave more power to Native American tribes to operate and determine the type of education their children would receive in all BIA and reservation schools.

Fort Lewis, the school to which Thomas was most likely taken in Borland’s When the Legends Die, began as a military post from which the U.S. government hoped to control the Utes. It was first located in Pagosa but later moved closer to the center of the Ute reservation in Ignacio. The fort eventually was converted to a boarding school for the Ute children and in 1911 became the state high school of agriculture. The school continued to evolve, becoming a junior college, and, in 1962, it began to offer a four-year liberal arts degree program. Today, it honors its roots by offering free tuition to all Native Americans.

The term rodeo is a derivative of the Spanish word rodear (pronounced “ro-day-are”), which means “to surround.” The Spanish occupied most of the Western lands of the United States at one time, and it was they who brought the horses and cattle into that part of the nation. As pioneers and homesteaders began pressing into the West, the new American cowboys learned their skills from the Spanish.

Before fences crisscrossed the Western lands, cattle roamed wide expanses of land and were only rounded up once a year, at which time they were branded and taken to large stockyards where they were slaughtered. It was during these large roundups that cowboys would gather together in camps on the open plains, and, after their work was done, they would demonstrate their skills in impromptu competitions.

In the latter part of the 1800s, it is guessed that the first official rodeo took place in Cheyenne, Wyoming. As trains and other modern inventions eliminated the need for the large roundups, cowboys, still anxious to show off their skills, began performing in front of small audiences. The custom caught on, and the audiences, as well as the prize money, grew. Thus, the modern tradition of rodeos was born.

Today, rodeos are often protested by animal activist groups, who contend that the sport causes unnecessary and cruel punishment for the cattle and horses involved in these events. Instead of riding wild horses, bronco riders sit atop horses that have flank straps wrapped around their groins and pulled tight enough to cause irritation. Cowboys are also allowed to wear spurs on their boots. This further increases the bucking of the horse, as the star-shaped wheels on the spurs are dug into the horse’s sides.

Veterinarians attending rodeo animals have claimed to see injuries such as broken necks and backs, broken legs and ribs, as well as internal hemorrhaging. Despite these reports, rodeos continue to draw large audiences, both at live performances and on television.


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Throughout When the Legends Die, setting is a very important factor in how the main character, Tom (the name he eventually settles on when he becomes an adult), behaves. At the age of five, he lives with his father and mother in a house supplied by a lumber mill. His father, George Black Bull, is a wage slave, whose job is the now-illegal practice of forcing employees to make purchases on credit from company stores and then forcing them to work until the debt is paid, which never happens because the debt always increases. It is 1910, and the Utes are only a generation away from an era in which they lived in the old ways, the tribal customs by which they lived in the wilderness and not on a plantation. His father tries to save enough money to buy his freedom, but the same man steals it three times. He kills the man in what an inquest would rule to be self-defense.

George Black Bull does not trust the "new ways" system of justice, and he flees with his family into the wilderness of Horse Mountain, where he builds a lodge in the old way, making sure that it is hidden from easy viewing. There, his son learns the crafts of both the men and women of his ancestors. His father dies in an avalanche; his mother continues teaching him all she knows of tribal lore, including chants that figure prominently in Tom's perceptions of life. When she dies of disease a few years later, he continues to live as he was taught, making friends with wild animals and learning how to understand the meanings of their cries. This part of the novel alone is enough to form a gripping tale of adventure.

When he is captured more than a year and a half after his mother's death, he speaks only Ute and has an adolescent grizzly bear for a companion. His captors abuse the bear, forcing Tom to accede to their demands that he return it to the wilderness. Escape attempts prove fruitless because Tom has nowhere to go; Blue Elk, the man who tricked him into captivity, has looted the lodge and burned it down.

Reservation school is very unpleasant for Tom; everyone from the agent to the teachers to his schoolmates tries to control his life—to make it theirs instead of his. Yet, he learns English and discovers skills at working leather. A handsome teenager, he attracts the attentions of schoolgirls, but for him the school is a bleak place that separates him from his true self.

When Red Dillon offers Tom a job, the reservation agent is grateful to grant Tom a permit to work off of the reservation and is glad to be rid of this sullen young man. Dillon has noticed Tom's skills as a horseman and trains him to become a bronc rider in rodeos. Although Dillon talks grandly of owning a huge ranch that he does not entirely use because he does not want all the work of maintaining a large enterprise, it turns out that he is a squatter. He owns some untamed horses and lives in a cabin with an ex-rodeo cowboy whose bent back warns of the sort of injuries rodeo cowboys may sustain. For Tom, Dillon's home is a place of unrelenting hard work, as well as lessons in his limitations. Eventually, Dillon presses him into gambling scams in which Tom deliberately takes falls from horses in order to set up Dillon's stings.

They travel through the towns of New Mexico and Texas, and Tom becomes familiar with the people of the region, getting to know the life of a rodeo cowboy. When he shakes himself loose from Dillon, he expands his horizons to rodeos in other states. When Dillon and then his companion Meo die, Tom burns down their barn and home, putting into action the primary impulse of his life: the destruction of his past. The setting for many years of his life then is the rodeo circuit; he lives in hotels, but he lives for the three rides he will have in each bronc-riding contest. He is a loner whose impersonal hotel rooms represent his impersonal life.

Only a return to his boyhood haunts, to heal from some very nasty injuries, seems to offer him hope of finding himself, although he does not expect to. Borland evades the cliches of a man returning to where he was young; the "you can't go home again" quest is quickly set aside when Tom discovers himself to be stronger and more accomplished than those who once tormented him. The other cliche, that he discovers the old ways to be the best ways, also is put aside. Tom's return to the wilderness teaches him to set aside his hate, to realize that his hatred is not his true self, and he realizes that he is not a man of the old ways, but instead a man who knows the old ways and appreciates them; he can teach them to others. He realizes that the new ways are part of him, as well, and he becomes a man in command of both environments, that of the wilderness and that of civilization.

Literary Style

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When the Legends Die takes place in the West at the turn of the twentieth century. It begins in Pagosa, Colorado, a real-life, small-town location that currently boasts of its tourist attraction of healing spring waters. At the time of this novel, however, the town was not much more than a sawmill town, probably with only the Native Americans being aware of the healing springs.

The story then moves to Ignacio, Colorado, the heart of the Ute reservation in southern Colorado. In creating the school to which Thomas is sent, Borland could be making reference to the Indian school that once was housed at Fort Lewis near the boundaries of Ignacio. The fort was set up in an attempt to “control” the Native American population. Part of this effort concentrated on educating the Native American children in the ways of the white settlers, thus stripping them of their traditional culture.

While Thomas travels the rodeo circuit, his home base is in Red Dillon’s cabin that sits on land outside of Aztec, New Mexico, another actual small town in the West. Most of the small towns that sponsored the rodeos at the time of the novel still hold these annual events today.

The wilderness area to which Thomas’s family retreats, and later to which Thomas returns, is land in the San Juan Mountain Range. It is through these mountains that the Piedra River runs, the same river that is mentioned when Bessie and George first run away from Pagosa. This area was part of the traditional home of the Ute tribe, and artifacts can still be found there. Evidence of Native American camps in the San Juan Range are estimated to go back to 6000–2000 B.C. Today, much of this land is still uncultivated and belongs to the U.S. forest system. Thomas’s family probably built their lodge somewhere between seven and eleven thousand feet in elevation.

The story is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. This narrator is privileged to see the unfolding of the tale through several different characters. This gives the story a well-rounded but sometimes shallow perspective. Though the reader is witness to many variations of opinions, none of the characters is revealed in depth.

The omniscient narrator tells the story in a very straightforward manner. There is only one flashback and that occurs in the beginning of the story; the rest is told in a linear time line. The narration is simple, with minimal descriptions offered about the landscape, the way people look, the colors of clothing, or, on a nonphysical level, the way people feel.

There is very little use of symbol or metaphor in the narration. Rather, the tale unfolds through a series of actions, with almost half of the story involved with the activity at rodeos.

Literary Qualities

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The prose style of When the Legends Die is reminiscent of that of Ernest Hemingway, himself a writer of fiction about the American wilderness. The reason for this may be the similarity in the literary backgrounds of Borland and Hemingway: both learned their craft while working as journalists. Thus, both wrote in usually short, to-the-point sentences and tended to paint images in quick strokes. Both authors were interested in the relationship between human beings and nature, especially in how each affected the other. Further, both men portrayed America's wilderness as a refuge from civilization for men with restless spirits, and both saw healing powers in the wilderness environment.

Borland's prose style is particularly effective in portraying action; from Tom's family's rush to sanctuary on Horse Mountain to Tom's ferocious rides at rodeos, the prose crackles with excitement:

The horse screamed, kicked madly. Men shouted. The crowd groaned. Tom, on the ground inside the empty chute, saw blood spurting. In the lunge that threw him, the horse had impaled itself on a splintered plank. A sliver broad as a man's hand had pierced the horse's chest like a huge bayonet, then broken off. Still screaming, the horse went down, hoofs flailing, frantic head pounding the ground.

A newspaper reporter's writing has to be lean, colorful, but to-the-point, providing information its readers should have while fitting within the limited space of a newspaper's column. In this passage, the legacy of Borland's decades of newspaper work shows: all the important details are there, but without commentary or explanation, allowing the event to speak for itself.

Social Sensitivity

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When the Legends Die is excellent for showing how confusion may occur in communication between Native Americans accustomed to a traditional tribal way of life and outsiders. For instance, Tom is used to quiet contemplation when he is studying something, but his school teachers seem to interpret his behavior as lack of interest. What is interpreted as stubbornness by his teachers is for Tom a legacy of self-reliance born of his years learning how to fend for himself in the wilderness; he seems to be a loner because he is very good at being alone and able to take comfort in the songs and stories that connect him to his family and ancestors long past.

When told to learn how to plow farmland, Tom's thought is that when you plowed up the grass you were making the earth into something it did not want to be. This aspect of When the Legends Die is one of the qualities that sets it apart from most fiction about Native Americans: it offers a profound insight into the cultural misunderstandings between a Native American and the American society that demands that he be integrated into it. As Tom fights his way through anger and hate, he not only reveals how he has been misunderstood by others, but he reveals how he and others like him may have misunderstood the new society, adding much depth to the themes of the novel and to the characterization of Tom. This double-sided presentation of cultural conflict allows for Tom's catharsis at the end of the novel, when he comes to terms not only with his past but with the present, becoming not a divided man but a whole man who knows his place in both worlds.

When the Legends Die has a sentimental element in its handling of wild animals. The friendship with a bear that defines Tom's life to such a degree that he names himself Bear's Brother romanticizes Tom's relationships with the wildlife around him. His relationships with birds and chipmunks further sentimentalize the natural world, giving the animals human-like qualities. Borland's purpose in doing this may have been to show how fully integrated into his wilderness habitat the boy Tom is, but it makes the lack of sentimentality toward animals in the rest of the novel somewhat jarring.

The shift from sentimentality to reality may be intended to show how Tom has hardened his heart and devoted himself to killing within himself aspects of his past that torment him. Even so, many readers may find the portraits of people's attitudes toward rodeo animals to be distressing. Tom often rides horses until they no longer can move, with blood foaming out of their mouths; one horse seems to die of ruptured lungs. This elicits admiration, not horror, from witnesses. Tom's riding horses to death becomes the stuff of legends and tall tales; as far as Tom himself is concerned, he is killing someone from his past when he torments and brutalizes his mounts.

In recent times, rodeos have come under fire from animal rights activists because of what is perceived as cruelty. Tom's own justification is that his rodeo broncos are not tame horses but murderous, ornery animals that would just as soon kill their riders; he sees no reason for sympathizing with them. His attitude could possibly spark some lively group discussions and arouse passions on both sides of the issue. Rodeo enthusiasts tend to know about how rodeo animals are cared for and may be able to make stout defenses of a practice that Borland asserts in When the Legends Die to be fundamentally American.

The killing of wildlife in Tom's home region in Colorado may also spark some outrage. When Tom returns to Colorado to heal, he falls in with men who casually talk about the extermination of grizzly bears, speaking with some admiration of what they believe to have been the last one, hunted down and killed a few years earlier. When Tom realizes that his old pet grizzly bear is still alive and in the mountains, he hunts it down, intending to kill it and put an end to the grizzly bear population. Wilderness preservationists are likely to disapprove of the attitude that exterminating wild animals is good—or at least acceptable.

Borland's own attitude toward the hunting to extinction of wildlife is not clear in When the Legends Die. His having Tom relent and let the bear live seems to suggest that the attitude of the sheep ranchers is not a good one; that the grizzly bears should be allowed to live. He further develops this idea by having Tom realize that he himself would have been killed by the bear before the bear actually died from its wounds; this would symbolically have represented Tom's failure to reconcile his spirit to the facts of his life. In other books, Borland shows sympathy for both hunter and preservationist; during most of his life (this would change in the late 1960s), society often viewed hunters and conservationists as one and the same. After all, the great founder of national parks, reserves, and wilderness areas Theodore Roosevelt was a hunter; even John James Audubon killed birds in order to study them up close. Conservation often meant preserving wildlife for hunting; thus, in the era in which When the Legends Die was written, the conflict between hunters and preservationists typical of the present era was by and large unknown. Further, the right of ranchers to kill wildlife that preyed on their sheep would have in general gone unquestioned, even though today the conflict between ranchers whose land is near national parks and those who wish to conserve animals that wander off the parks and on to ranches is widely publicized and frequently the subject of stories on television news programs.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Holifield, Mitch, “When the Legends Die: A Point beyond Culture,” in Education, Vol. 120, No. 1, Fall 1999.

Wakeman, John, ed., World Authors, 1950–1970, H. W. Wilson, 1975.

Further Reading
Bass, Rick, The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado, Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Rick Bass, a gifted writer of novels, short stories, and nature essays, tackles the mystery of the grizzly bears in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Many people continue to claim they have seen grizzlies in these mountains where the bears have been officially declared extinct. Through his lyrical prose, Bass recounts his adventures in an attempt to finally put the questions to rest.

Borland, Hal, Country Editor’s Boy, Lippincott, 1970. This book recounts Borland’s life story as he matures into a young man. Borland tells the story by describing his relationships with his parents, friends, and neighbors.

—, High, Wide and Lonesome, Lippincott, 1956. This is an autobiography about Borland’s youth. It is told through Borland’s constant vision of the landscape around him.

Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970. This highly praised account of the Western expansion as witnessed by Native Americans is a powerful testimony to the fortitude of the native peoples of America. Brown covers such controversial and sorrowful topics as the Long Walk of the Navahos, the constant struggle and fight over the last herds of buffalo, and the founding of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Eisler, Kim Isaac, Revenge of the Pequots: How a Small Native American Tribe Created the World’s Most Profitable Casino, Simon & Schuster, 2001. Eisler tells the story of how the descendents of the Pequots, a small tribe in southern Connecticut, turned oppression into advantage by using the laws that the U.S. government had created to ensure their financial success, becoming the wealthiest Indian tribe in the history of North America. The irony of this story surrounds the fights that ensued when rights of the Pequots to claim themselves as an official tribe were challenged, something that no one bothered to argue until this tribe was about to reap the benefits of a profitable gambling casino.

Hirschfelder, Arlene, ed., Native Heritage: Personal Accounts by Native Americans, 1790 to the Present, Macmillan, 1995. The book contains a collection of personal essays, written or told during two hundred years of transition in Native American culture. The stories focus on the effects of these changes on Native American families, language, land, education, traditions, and spirituality.

Wroth, William, Ute Indian Art and Culture: From Prehistory to the New Millennium, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 2001. This is a beautiful collection of photographs and essays on the Ute culture, an often overlooked or totally ignored subject. Wroth, a former curator of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, has brought together an assembly of old clothing, jewelry, and other artifacts in an attempt to tell the story, through pictures and words, of the history of these people.

Compare and Contrast

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1800s: Cowboys show their skills at roping calves and riding wild horses during the large spring roundup of cattle out on the plains.

1900s: Cowboys follow a rodeo circuit across North America that includes over two thousand shows a year. Most performers belong to an organized group called the Cowboys Turtle Association (CTA).

Today: Cowboys have a large following of fans (estimated at over 13 million) who either watch them perform live at rodeo arenas across the United States and Canada or see them on weekend broadcasts on television.

1800s: The Ute Indians roam the San Juan Mountains in search of food and stop at the Pagosa (which is Ute for “healing waters”) springs to cure themselves of the pains of rheumatism and other health problems.

1900s: The U.S. government sets up a fort near the Pagosa springs and a white settlement called Pagosa Springs is incorporated. Cattlemen and lumberjacks soon roam through the mountains.

Today: Tourism is the largest industry of Pagosa Springs. The small town of a little over two thousand residents is the starting point for white-water rafting, fishing, and backcountry camping expeditions. Median income of its residents is $19,000. Median price of a home is a little less than $200,000.

1800s: Legalized gambling in the United States sees the emergence of government-sponsored lotteries to help finance local and national projects. However, due to many scandals, such as sponsors absconding with the money collected, gambling is outlawed in all but three states.

1900s: The Great Depression causes a resurgence of gambling. Looked at as a way to stimulate the economy, states rescind their antigambling laws. Capitalizing on a crackdown on illegal gambling, Nevada and New Jersey are the first to welcome gambling with the construction of gaming houses. State lotteries soon follow.

Today: To help combat the chronic poverty on many reservations, over one hundred Native American tribes build gambling casinos on their reservation land. Many states argue about how to tax the tribal gambling earnings, which some estimate to be between $2 and $8 billion a year.

Media Adaptations

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When the Legends Die was made into a film in 1972 by Twentieth Century Fox. The movie starred Frederick Forrest and Richard Widmark and was billed as a sensitive story about two friends (making reference to Thomas Black Bull’s and Red Dillon’s relationship.)

For Further Reference

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Borland, Hal. High, Wide and Lonesome. New York: Lippincott, 1956. An autobiography emphasizing Borland's interest in nature.

This Hill, This Valley. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957. An autobiography that includes insights into the inspirations for Borland's other books.

"Borland, Hal" In Something about the Author, ed. Anne Commire, vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research, 1973, 22-23. Mostly a listing of publications and dates, with some biographical details.

"Borland, Hal" In Something about the Author, ed. Anne Commire, vol. 24. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981, 51. A somewhat belated obituary notice.

Harris, Karen. Booklist 88, 20 (June 15, 1992): 1868. A positive review of an audio version of When the Legends Die read by Norman Dietz.

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