It was the vision of longtime journalism professor and Belle Fourche native William “Bill” Kunerth to bring “The Last Cowboy” filmmaker Jon Alpert to the Black Hills. For 23 years, Alpert documented the adversities faced by Porcupine cowboy Vern Sager. He hoped to show the raw reality of the rugged lifestyle romanticized by generations of film and television productions.
Kunerth hoped to do the same thing. “He wanted people to understand the South Dakota ranching culture,” said Dr. Mitch Hopewell, interim director of educational outreach at Black Hills State University. Kunerth died in December. However, his vision will be realized later this month when Alpert and Sager come to the Black Hills for a weekend dedicated to the showing and discussion of “The Last Cowboy.”
The weekend is a collaborative effort between BHSU and local museums including the Tri-State Museum in Belle Fourche where Kunerth and his wife Willie were longtime members. Following is the list of events:
· Friday, April 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Tri-State Museum there will be a screening of “The Last Cowboy” and a tribute to Kunerth. Donations will be accepted.
· Saturday, April 26 from 10 a.m. – noon at the Days of ’76 Museum in Deadwood there will be a community forum with Alpert and Sager. The cost is $5.50 for members and $11 for non-members.
· Saturday, April 26 from 2-5 p.m. Alpert will also present a filmmaker’s workshop at BHSU. The cost is $20 for community members and $10 for students.
· The Journey Museum in Rapid City will host another screening of the documentary Sunday, April 27 at 2 p.m. The cost is $10 for nonmembers, $7 for members and $5 for students. Tax is not included.
Kunerth believed the story of Sager told in “The Last Cowboy” should be more widely known throughout South Dakota. According to Rochelle Silva, director of the Tri-State Museum, Kunerth felt that Alpert’s documentary on Sager’s more than 20-year struggle was by far the most accurate depiction of ranch life.
In correspondence to Alpert, Kunerth wrote, “Things have changed for most ranchers, with several years of excellent cattle prices and good weather. Many ranchers are driving extended cab pickups rather than Sager-vintage vehicles. However, the weather is still the determiner. Last year was bone-dry – no hay and the pastures are struggling to come back. Dry summer, fall and winter. Had some moisture a couple of weeks ago, but the future doesn’t look good.”
Alpert met Sager when he was working for the “Today” show and was doing a story in which he followed a homeless Native American from New York City back to his home on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Alpert, who had always been fascinated by cowboys, was surprised to learn that there were white cowboys on the reservation who leased land from the tribe. Alpert ran into Sager who was willing to show the filmmaker the life of a rancher. For more than two decades, Alpert captured the character, courage, strength and stubbornness of Sager documented the family’s battle to maintain its way of life.
For more information on “The Last Cowboy” filming and lecture contact Hopewell at Thomas.Hopewell@BHSU.edu or 605-642-1241.