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Indian Relay Race Is A Tradition For More Than Just The Rodeo

Catherine Wheeler
The jockey for the Indian relay team Goes Ahead Pretty, who represent the Apsaalooke Nation, jumps off a horse while another team member prepares to stop it at the World Championship Indian Relay Races at the Sheridan WYO Rodeo.

The Sheridan WYO Rodeo dates all the way back to 1931, and Tom Ringley, Sheridan County Commissioner and rodeo board member emeritus, said locals got the idea during the years of the Great Depression.

"They wanted some activity for the town because it was as dead as a doornail," he said.

But it's most famous event has only been around for 23 years.

"We've got an event, which is not a sanctioned [Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association] event. But it's sanctioned by the Sheridan WYO Rodeo, and that's the World Championship Indian Relay Races," Ringley said.

Shawn Real Bird, the Indian events coordinator for the rodeo, said the sport originates with Plains Native American tribes stealing horses when they were at war with each other.

"When the horse that they rode got played out, they would jump on another horse, and they would do that all the way back home. That's where the Indian relay started," Real Bird said.

Real Bird said they brought this tradition to reservations, and competitors raced around on tracks.

In the 1990s, Sheridan rodeo officials asked Real Bird if there were some Native American events that could make the rodeo more exciting because attendance was going down.

"If they didn't bring back the Native events there was a possibility they would have to cancel it because there was a low fan base," he said.

Real Bird said the Indian relay races caught on quickly.

A race has a lot of moving parts. There are teams of four people: a rider and three others that control and stop the horses. The rider starts by jumping onto the horse and rides bareback. After each lap, the rider has to jump off the moving horse and jump onto a new one for a total of three laps.

This can lead to a lot of chaos.

"The wrecks and the excitement all happen when you're switching horses because another horse from another team could run into you. You could run into another team, and you could fall off your horse. And they don't have [a] saddle, and they're riding bareback, and they're riding full speed," he said.

Real Bird said not only is the race considered the most extreme sport in North America, but it's also a way to preserve Native American culture and traditions.

"[For] many many years, it was not good to be an American Indian. But today, with organizations like the Professional Cowboys Association supporting Indian relay, that we can bring this Native culture to the forefront, we can bring and display it for all the world to see," he said.

Real Bird even made a rule that riders have to wear traditional dress, and riders paint themselves and their horses with traditional designs.

"They take great pride in their teams. I didn't foresee that these team members would all be utilizing a uniform with native designs on them. Even now, some of the teams come out with moccasins and some teams would even come out with war bonnets," Real Bird said.

And, of course, they win prize money. The winning team receives $50,000 in cash and prizes. There are also additional cash prizes for costuming.

Real Bird said the Indian relays go beyond just the Sheridan rodeo. There's a circuit and competitions all over the country. He invites all tribal nations to compete in Sheridan race. He said that most participants live on reservations, and the competitions have had a positive impact.

Paul Nomee is a jockey for the Alligator Creek team from the Crow Reservation. He said he loves the fast pace of the sport.

"It brings a lot of excitement, a lot of competition and big crowds. I think this one is probably the most extreme sport," Nomee said.

Tom Ringley of the rodeo board said the Indian relays are a vital part of what makes the Sheridan WYO rodeo great.

"It's become an integral part of the rodeo. I can't imagine not having it," Ringley said.

On Saturday, July 13, the Mountain Crow team that represents the Crow Nation took the top prize after 4 days of competition.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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