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Rodeo drive -- The rise and fall of the indian cowgirl queen
. photo of rodeo


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.

Leah in 1952, the year she was queen.\With 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.

Leah—her short hair masked by fake braids—meets President Harry Truman at the 1952 Pendleton Round-UpThere 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):

Leah leads 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 Photos

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