BY JOAN BURBICK ’68
Raised on the
Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeast Oregon, Leah’s life had been
filled with horses. Her maternal grandfather was a gambler and a horse
trader. Her mother and aunt rode horses everywhere together and traveled
with the seasonal migrations of the tribe, hunting, gathering roots,
and trading. When Leah was young, she and her siblings would ride
horses barefoot in their summer clothes. They would camp at Cayuse
Ridge and ride to the mountains in the warm months to a place called
Poverty Flat, a name imposed by people Leah calls “emigrants”—whites
who do not understand how local geography resonates with the tribes,
their sacred places, and family stories. She still chafes at that
power. She prefers the name Cabbage Hill to Poverty Flat because of
the dense skunk cabbage that covers the ground in early spring. In
1952, Leah was queen of the Pendleton Round-Up, the oldest rodeo in
the Northwest and one of the oldest in the country. Selected by the
rodeo organizers to represent and promote the rodeo’s activities,
she was the fourth Indian to be named queen. Only one would be chosen
after her, in 1953.
Over lunch at the Wildhorse Gaming Resort in Pendleton, Oregon, Leah,
who prefers not to give her last name, explained to me that in the
1940s and 1950s, when she was active in rodeo, Indians “tried to do
both.” I didn’t understand what she was saying. When I questioned
her, she was silent for a few moments and then continued, “Today,
not many Indians go to rodeos.” The rodeo used to be a way to “do
both”—to participate in both the Indian and white worlds—but Leah
feels that is not true for many Indians anymore. In the 1940s, Indians
and whites played together at the rodeo, but times had changed: Indians
still ride in the rodeo parade, set up their encampment and hold a
powwow, but they don’t go to the rodeo. They are not a rodeo crowd.
Rodeo was a late incarnation of the Wild West shows that began toward
the end of the 19th century with Buffalo Bill Cody’s popular extravaganzas,
which turned the history of the winning of the West into a romanticized
myth of heroic frontiersmen and cavalry battling bloodthirsty, primitive
Indians. Not coincidentally, rodeo developed at the end of the struggle
over the frontier, glorifying pastoral values of ranch work and the
taming of the wild. Pendleton, founded in 1868 and today a city of
17,000, began its rodeo in the fall of 1910, and area business leaders
and ranchers invited the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse Indians
to participate. Many of Leah’s ancestors were at the first Pendleton
Round-Up, though Leah’s mother and aunt missed it. They had not returned
from their summer-long gathering of food and hides in the mountains
of eastern Oregon.
the cooperation of the tribes, the rodeo grew more and more popular.
Thousands of whites poured into Pendleton every September to watch
the parade, Indian dances, Indian horse races, and rodeo events. The
rodeo also became a magnet for Indians throughout the region, and
large Indian gatherings camped next to the rodeo grounds, seeing the
opportunity to make extra money. The temporary tepee village was a
great draw for tourists, but it also provided a place for Indians
to exchange news, feast, and trade among themselves.
In the early years of rodeo, many local ventures tried to stage their
own impromptu Wild West shows, in which local Indians teamed up with
whites to perform choreographed battles and “scenes” from the history
of the West. Pendleton tried the Wild West format, but according to
Virgil Rupp, the rodeo’s historian, the local tribes would not participate
in a staged battle “unless they could shoot back.” As early as 1910,
they resisted the tired formulations in which Indians staged attacks
on defenseless settlers’ cabins.
So the Pendleton Round-Up tried a slightly different approach. In
1913, four years before Buffalo Bill Cody died, the city produced
a new type of Wild West show, known as Happy Canyon, which continues
to this day. Called “The Pageant of the West—An Outdoor Dramatic Production,
Symbolizing the History and Development of the Great West,” the original
Happy Canyon show was the product of the combined efforts of two people:
Roy Raley, a Pendleton pioneer, and Anna Minthorn, an Indian woman
who taught Sunday school at the Presbyterian church. Happy Canyon
was an attempt to tell the story of the West in part from the Indian
point of view. Indeed, the first section of the show depicts Indian
village life prior to contact with Europeans and Euro-Americans. But
the cultural overlap between Indian and cowboy has remained problematic.
In 2001, a revised Happy Canyon was produced. Indians were given more
speaking roles and horses to fight the U.S. cavalry. They even won
one battle. The pageant included more historical material and, most
important, scripted a scene depicting the signing of the 1855 treaty
at Walla Walla, when the Confederated Tribes—Umatilla, Walla Walla,
and Cayuse—won the right to an independent reservation in the Umatilla
Valley. But to some the tone of the pageant was still wrong. The serious
historical treatment of tribal loss and pain jarred against what followed:
the forced humor of saloon scenes and lighthearted pioneer storytelling.
In the 1910s
and 1920s, Pendleton rodeo queens included movie stars such
as Mary Duncan and Josie Sedgwick. They also included daughters
of local businessmen and ranchers drawn from both the Indian
and white communities. In other words, rodeo queens could
also be rodeo cowgirls. They rode trick horses, roped, raced,
and competed on bucking horses and bulls. In fact, in the
1920s, rodeos gave top billing to the ladies’ bronc riding
and racing events. Nonetheless, when Mabel Strickland, queen
of the Pendleton Round-Up in 1927, petitioned the rodeo
board to compete directly with men for the title of all-around
rodeo cowboy, she was refused.
The heyday of the rodeo cowgirl did not last long. In 1929,
Bonnie McCarroll, a bronc rider, had a bucking horse fall
on her and drag her through the dust at the Pendleton Round-Up.
She died of her injuries. The board of directors decided
that their rodeo would never again include the ghastly death
of a woman. Men could be hurt and even killed, but no woman
would be allowed to ride a bucking animal. Indian and white
women alike still raced and competed as trick riders, but
even those events vanished for periods of time.
During the 1930s, women began to have a more defined and
restricted role at Pendleton. In 1934, rodeo royalty began
to perform a daredevil entry, whipping across the arena
and up and over the perimeter fences. This display of horsemanship
was more entertainment than competition. Rodeo queens could
still participate in the competitive races at the Round-Up
if they wanted to, but increasingly most stuck to the flashy
promotional duties. By the late 1940s, both Indian and white
women were increasingly relegated to the role of promoter,
the modern rodeo queen.—J.B.
To Leah, who is college educated and a retired schoolteacher and
librarian, the Happy Canyon roles had always seemed “too static
a portrayal of Indians.” She says “Indians have changed and whites
have changed,” and she had wanted to see the pageant rewritten for
years. But both Indian and white individuals and families in the
community were invested in keeping their parts in the play. (Leah’s
own family had acted in the pageant since the 1940s.) And the need
to keep people coming through the gates reinforced the reluctance
to change. Before the casino slots and other business enterprises
brought a measure of financial independence to the tribes, economic
survival seemed to rest on keeping the familiar stereotypes alive.
After our lunch, Leah invited me back to her house to continue talking.
I followed her to her home on the reservation and pulled up in front
of a modest, squared-off bungalow, surrounded by flat fields of
sage and brush. We spent the rest of the day in her living room,
looking through a pile of scrapbooks on the coffee table.
I opened the brittle pages carefully. The first photograph was of
Leah and her sister, Etta, who also participated in the Pendleton
Round-Up, riding their horses in the “Squaw Race,” Thursday, September
13, 1951. The women seemed to fly across the page, their horses
lean and quick, their bodies braced for the run. Leah told me that
she would lose five pounds during the Round-Up. She would get up
early, take care of her horse, do the races, ride in the parade,
and then sometimes have more races. In the first half of the century,
the Pendleton Round-Up was quite progressive in one way: Both Indian
and white women were given important roles.
At Pendleton, women from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla
Indian Reservation were elected queens in 1926, 1932, 1948, 1952,
and 1953. Also up to 1953, there were five all-Indian royalty courts
representing the Round-Up, but after that, none, as the roles for
women at Pendleton became racially divided. After World War II,
when women no longer competed in the arena but rather sold the rodeo
(see accompanying story), their ethnic background and race became
more significant. The rodeo was laced increasingly with patriotism,
and its queen was under strong pressure to look and act a particular
way. White middle-class women were judged by rodeo boards as the
best bet to promote the show.
So why was Leah chosen queen? Leah got involved in the Round-Up
when her mother called her at Willamette University and urged her
to come home for tryouts. Looking back, Leah feels that she was
selected by the rodeo committee because she was “the Indian in college,”
respectable and middle-class.
I kept paging through Leah’s scrapbooks as we talked. In one section
was a series of newspaper promotional shots of Leah in 1952: Leah
in buckskin dress, Leah in a formal evening gown, Leah in a tennis
outfit with tennis racket, Leah with her horse, Leah with a Mixmaster
in a kitchen behind a bowl of huckleberries—an Indian June Cleaver.
were pictures of Leah with W. Averell Harriman, with Oregon representatives
to Congress, with a New York businessman, a local millionaire, and
Oregon governor James Douglas McKay. She showed me a photograph
of herself in buckskin dress and braids presenting President Harry
Truman with a Pendleton blanket. When I asked her what that experience
was like, she told me she had been afraid. “Afraid?” I asked. “Of
what?” “Well, it was my short hair,” Leah replied. After her reign
as rodeo queen, she had acquired a stylish bob. When she met Truman,
she said, she was afraid her “braids would fall off.” In looking
at the picture, I had not noticed the fake hair, worn for the pleasure
of the president. It had seemed so natural.
Joan Burbick ’68 is a professor of English and American studies
at Washington State University. Her essay is drawn from the book
Rodeo Queens and the American Dream. Copyright 2002 by Joan
Burbick, reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, New York.
All rights reserved.
Photos (from top):
in the “Squaw Race” at the 1951 Pendleton Round-Up.
Courtesy of Howdyshell Photos
Leah in 1952, the year she was queen. Courtesy of Howdyshell Photos
Leah—her short hair masked by fake braids—meets President
Harry Truman at the 1952 Pendleton Round-Up. Courtesy of Howdyshell