Cowboys in America


The Film

Left to right:

Close up shot of man in cowboy hat on a spotted horse leaning toward the camera. 

Cows eating bales of hay

Older man in plaid shirt, suspenders and cap sits with young boy in a tractor cab smiling and talking.

“Life is like a rhythm. Sometimes if you’re lucky, why it’s a duet. And other times, it’s just a solo. And today it’s a solo flight. One thing that hasn’t changed in all these years is different cows, but they’re still eating the same amount of hay. And I still buy them.”
								—Vernon Sager, THE LAST COWBOY

Twenty-three years in the making, Jon Alpert's THE LAST COWBOY follows Vern Sager, a real American cowboy, through his hardscrabble life in one of the most isolated places in America. Out on the range with temperatures so extreme a herd can freeze overnight, Vern faces an army of adversaries: cattle rustlers, international agribusiness, old age, the weather and the wanderlust of his own family.

The Sager family owns a ranch in Porcupine, South Dakota, in the middle of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, located in Shannon County, the poorest county in America. Unemployment (around 80 percent), disease and lack of education produce a discouraging statistical profile. Shannon County, the historic and current site of "Cowboy versus Indian" tension, contains the sites of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the American Indian Movement occupation of Porcupine Butte, all just a horse ride from Vern Sager's home.

In a snowy field, a man bundled up in winter clothes sits atop a horse

A man in dark suit, bolo tie and cowboy hat stands next to a woman in white holding a bridal bouquet. Another woman in glasses officiates the ceremony: a Native American quilt on the wall and an eagle feather in the foreground.

Filmmaker Jon Alpert has been following Sager's life for more than two decades, hoping to show the raw reality of a rugged lifestyle romanticized by generations of film and television producers. The camera catches Sager up at three a.m. on a February morning when the temperature is 20 below zero, as he tries to keep the new calves from freezing to death. "Somehow, they all want to have their babies on the coldest day of the year," he says.

Alpert follows Sager as he toils under the August heat, a merciless drought squeezing the life out of his crops and cattle, and battles with the commodity brokers who fix the prices and somehow every year walk off with most of the cowboy's "profits." It is a difficult life and if Sager weren't such a hard worker, he'd have been forced to live off the farm a long time ago. In the past generation, 90 percent of the Sager clan earned their living off the land. Only five percent farm or ranch today. All of Sager's kids have moved to town except for Mark, a former rodeo champion who fell in love with a Native American woman (and her four kids) and married her, transforming the Sagers into a "Cowboy/Indian" family. THE LAST COWBOY captures the character, courage, strength and stubbornness of Vernon Sager and documents the Sager family's battle to maintain its way of life.


October 28, 2005

Filmmaker Jon Alpert writes:

Vernon has rounded up his calves. He is pre-conditioning them (you cowboys will understand that) in preparation to sell them.

Vernon had scheduled a liquidation sale to dispose of most of his horses. He was hoping to use the Internet and the RFD satellite channel to widen the number of people who could see and bid on his livestock. Due to circumstances beyond his control, it has been postponed till the spring. If you want a good horse…stay tuned.

Vernon would be all alone at the ranch, but his grandson Jeremy has moved in, and is a hard worker and a big help. Vernon’s wife Carol remains in town. Her heath has not been good and she could use everybody's best wishes. Vernon and the kids are quite concerned. Vernon often goes to town to help Carol out.

The world premiere of THE LAST COWBOY was held on October 15th in Gordon, Nebraska at the American Legion Hall—the same place were Mark and Devona were married in the film. What a great night. All of Vernon and Carol’s kids were there, along with 400 local cowboys and Indians. There was no place left to sit or stand, and probably 200 more people couldn't get inside because there wasn't any room.

[Since the PBS broadcast,] Vernon has been getting phone calls from friends and strangers around the country. He appreciates all the folks who have taken time to contact him.

Learn more about Porcupine, South Dakota >>

Trace the evolution of cowboys and ranchers in America >>


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