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FOLKLIFE IN FOCUS – National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Welcome to the Follow the Folklorist blog! Founded by Rebecca Snetlesaar and currently led by Nevada State Folklorist Brad McMullen, our blog is dedicated to exploring the rich tapestry of cultures, traditions, and celebrations that make Nevada such a vibrant state. Through our two main topics, Folklife in Focus and Notes from the Field, Brad will share his unique insights and experiences, providing a captivating glimpse into the diverse and fascinating world of Nevada folk traditions. Join us on this exciting journey as we delve into the stories, customs, and heritage that shape our state’s identity. Get ready to be inspired and amazed! 

Celebrating 39 Years of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

It is January in Nevada, which means it’s time to get ready for one of Northern Nevada’s signature folklife events, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering! Started in 1985, the Gathering is put on each year by the Western Folklife Center in Elko, NV at the end of January. It’s a week filled with all sorts of traditional arts – everything from the cowboy traditions you’d expect like cowboy poetry, music, and gear making to food and dances from cattle cultures around the world. 

Cowboy poetry is a tradition that stretches back to the cattle drives of the late 19th century. Poetry and music served as a way for cowboys to occupy themselves and entertain each other while on the trail, as well as to document and share their experiences. At the turn of the century cowboy poets like Charles Badger Clark, Bruce Kiskaddon, S. Omar Barker, Curley Fletcher, and Gail Gardner all had their works published in periodicals and newspapers, and later books, prompting other cowboys to learn and share. This served as the base for the importance of the classics and reciting of other poets work that you see in cowboy poetry. 

Later cowboy poets like Baxter Black, Paul Zarzyski, Georgie Sicking, National Heritage Fellows Wally McRae and Joel Nelson and Nevadan Waddie Mitchell all contributed through a mixture of reciting the classics and penning their own poems about ranch life, rodeo, and beyond. And musicians like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ian Tyson, Michael Martin Murphey, and Red Steagall took classic poems and songs and brought them to a new audience. Younger generations have kept the tradition vibrant and alive, performing the classics and adding their own poems and songs to the tradition. 

If you’re interested in checking out cowboy poetry or music, the Gathering is a great place to start. If you can’t make it up to Elko, you can always check out our Home Means Nevada vignettes with cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, cowboy singer Larry Schutte, or the Western Folklife Center’s Western Folklife TV. Happy trails!  

Cowboy Poet Waddie Mitchell (Spring Creek, NV) reciting “When They’ve Finished Shipping Cattle in the Fall” by Bruce Kiskaddon, as part of the Nevada Stories Series, funded through Folk and Traditional Arts grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Notes from the Field

One important part of what I do as Folklife Specialist is what we call fieldwork. Going out into the community and going to events, meeting traditional artists and community members, and documenting the event through photo and video. Fieldwork can also include sit-down interviews with artists and other people about their traditions and customs, diving into how they learned them, how they do them, what meaning they get from them, and what they hope for the future of their traditions. Here’s an overview of the fieldwork I’ve done so far – all down in the Las Vegas area, but I’m making plans to make my way across the state.

            September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month, which means there are a lot of events celebrating the various cultures of Latin American in between those dates! Many nations in Central and South America have their Independence Day during that period – September 15 for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua; September 16 for Mexico; September 18 for Chile; and September 21 for Belize. The first event I went to was El Grito: Celebrating the Independence of Mexico, which took place on Friday, September 15 at East Las Vegas Community Center. The event featured Mariachi music, Ballet Folklorico dancers, representatives from each state in Mexico, and speakers from Mexico and the local Mexican-American community. The next night was the Hidalgo Cultural Event at Winchester Dondero Cultural Center. Once again, there were Mariachi bands, Folklorico dancers as well as Calpulli Tlatelolco, plus a number of merchants and food trucks from the Las Vegas community. Later in the month I went to Fiesta Folklorico: A Celebration of Dance at the West Charleston Library, which featured the ballet folklorico group Danzantes del Puetro. Next was Our Communities’ Culture, produced by Las Vegas Parks and Recreation and Chispa NV, which featured different community groups talking about their cultural traditions. My final event was “Club Migrantes de Urupan Celebrates Hispanic Heritage” at Lorenzi Park, which featured singers, dancers, and a parade of nations, featuring people with connections to different Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas.

            Another culture well represented in Nevada is rodeo culture. Las Vegas has been the home of the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) since 1984, with the first week of December seeing a whole cattle crew of rodeo riders and fans showing up in town. And where a rodeo goes, gear shows follow, and NFR is no exception. Cowboy gearmakers and other artisans fill up the Las Vegas Convention Center and hotel conference areas all around town. I only made it to two of the shows – the Cowboy Christmas show at the Convention Center and the Cinch Western Gear Show at the South Point Hotel, Casino, & Spa. Both had their share of hat, boot, and cinch makers, leather workers, rawhide braiders, and more, as well as other vendors selling all sorts of stuff. Both shows also had plenty of food and drinks, performances, and rodeo activities going on too. But I didn’t wait till December to check out the Las Vegas rodeo scene – in September I went to the BigHorn Rodeo, hosted by the Nevada Gay Rodeo Association at Horseman’s Park. Nevada was the home of the first gay rodeo, held in 1974 in Reno as a fundraiser for a Thanksgiving food drive for senior citizens (this charitable focus continues, with proceeds from the BigHorn Rodeo going to local Las Vegas charities). Gay rodeo gets set apart for two reasons – people of any gender can compete in any event and there’s a handful of extra events – the Wild Drag Race, Goat Dressing, and Steer Decorating. If you’re a rodeo fan and never been, it’s definitely worth checking out!

            Fall is also a busy time for cultural events in general in Las Vegas (probably because of the heat!). There’s a whole bunch of cultural festivals, and I was only able to make it to a handful, but the ones I did attend were a blast. First up was the Las Vegas Greek Fest at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, followed by the Lebanese American Festival at St. Sharbel Maronite Church, then the Aki Matsuri Japanese Festival at Water Street Plaza, Vida en Muerte at the Winchester Dondero Cultural Center, the Indigenous American Heritage Celebration organized by Nuwu Art at Water Street Plaza, and the Tamale and Mariachi Festival at the Historical Fifth Street School. Some of these events were connected to specific holidays, others just recognizing a culture in general, but each of them celebrates cultural traditions and art forms and how communities come together to mark time and recognize their heritage. At each of these events there was music and dance and food and togetherness, as well as participation by various community groups sharing their hard work and passion. 

            There were also a bunch of other events I attended last year. There was Aratrik, organized by the Hindu and Jain Temple of Las Vegas at Windmill Library, which featured Indian music and dance. I went to the Age of Chivalry Renaissance Festival at Sunset Park. A Renaissance Festival might not be exactly what you think of as folklife, but it is a group coming together over shared cultural expression and norms. There are rules of dress and behavior and traditions that get performed annually – the people who participate are a folk group like any other, and it’s interesting to compare to other forms of cultural expression. There was the City of Henderson’s Hawaiian Christmas at Water Street Plaza featuring Kalani Pe’a from Hawaii and local Hawaiian dancers and dance groups. And the last event of the year was the Kwanzaa Celebration at West Las Vegas Library which had a pop-up market, performances by local groups Olabisi African Dance & Drum Ensemble and MOLODI, and conversations with community elders about the meaning and history of Kwanzaa and why it is an important celebration.

            It was a busy couple of months! And I could go into much more detail about each of these events (and probably will in the future), but I don’t want to go on too long. What are some of your favorite Nevada cultural events? Anything you think I should make sure to attend this year? It doesn’t have to be in the Vegas area – I’m cleared to drive a state car, which means I can go anywhere now! Reach out and let me know at And make sure to check out the NV Folklife Archive to see pictures of these events and more.

Explore Elko’s Western Gear and Art

Willow and gourd baskets by Leah Brady, a Master Weaver at the 17th Annual Great Basin Native Market. February 2nd, 2023, Elko, NV. Photograph by Kassandra Andicoechea-Schmaling.

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering isn’t the only thing happening in Elko next week! You’ll have opportunities to shop western gear or art and explore all of Elko’s shows and happenings to complement the official event. Here are the places to check out while you’re in Elko:

  • 18th Annual Great Basin Native Market: Featuring the finest of Native beadwork, jewelry, paintings, ledger art, original art, calendars, fashion, and more! Located in the Girl Scout House.
  • Celebrate the West at Great Basin College: The Humanities Center at GBC invites you to a presentation Agriculture in Unexpected Places with Jeff Mundell⁠, 2/1. Plus, catch two exhibitions: Honest Horses: a portrait of the mustang in the Great Basin – our Touring Initiative Exhibition and ⁠Western Shoshone Arts: living traditions, living culture⁠.
  • Western Folklife Center’s Western Mercantile: The Western Folklife Center’s gear show, featuring the highest quality authentic western gear and art, located in the Elko Conference Center.
  • Cowboy Arts & Gear Museums Gear Show & Sale: Annual auction featuring bits, spurs, and romel reins. Place your bids and look at work by astounding gear makers from around the West.
  • Stockmen’s Cowboy Gear & Art Show: A trip to Elko isn’t a trip without a stop at the historic Stockmen’s Casino. Check out bits, spurs, saddles, leatherwork, rawhide braiding, Western art, silver work, etc.
  • Silver State Trade Show: A gathering of American hand makers of working buckaroo gear, goods and great company, located at the Elko County Fairgrounds.
  • Cowcamp Trading PostA round-up of fine cowboy gear, art, & sundries, located at the Maverick Casino and Hotel.

Visit the Nevada Folklife Archives on Flickr

Folklorists working for the Nevada Arts Council have been documenting folklife and folk arts in Nevada since 1986. After completing an ambitious 10-year project to digitize 22,823 color slides recorded between 1986 and 2005.

We’ve begun to share these images in photo albums on the Nevada Folklife Archives’ Flickr page, along with more recent photography completed over the past 15 years.

Are you conducting a project and looking for photographs? We’ll happily check the archives and post new albums for your viewing pleasure. Featured here is photograph from a recent visit to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, during Doug Groves’ Rawhide Braiding Workshop in 2020. This workshop took participants through the whole process over 4 days of creating useful gear from home-grown rawhide.

Photo caption: Braiders working on their projects at Doug Groves’ Rawhide Braiding Workshop, National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, 2020, Elko, NV. Courtesy of the Nevada Folklife Archives. Photo by Rebecca Snetselaar.

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