Plains Indians have been cowboys for a long time. Their involvement in the cattle industry of the region began in the late nineteenth century and continues to the present. Indian men and women have also been involved for an extended period of time in the world of rodeo. Their participation in ranching and rodeo is significant both in economic and cultural terms.
After the American Civil War, cattle ranching played an important role in the economic development of the Plains. This development came at considerable cost. Native communities lost millions of acres through treaties, agreements, land allotment, land cessions, and long-term leases. With bison hunting no longer possible, Plains Indian peoples had to find alternative means to sustain themselves. Cattle ranching offered Indian men a chance to ride, an alternative to farming, and an opportunity to demonstrate both competence and generosity. Cattle could be given as presents, used to feed people at a gathering, and employed to teach young people about responsibility and reciprocity. Given their needs and given the success their new neighbors were enjoying, it is not surprising that so many Indian individuals and communities turned to cattle ranching. Some, like Quanah Parker, knew spectacular, if too brief, success. Others started ranches that continue to our own day. Many Native cowboys also found work as cowboys on ranches owned by non-Indians.
Progress in the Indian cattle industry during the twentieth century was limited by fluctuating federal policies and market conditions, as well as the problems of fractionated land-ownership because of the division of allotted land through inheritance and sale. Nonetheless, many Indian ranchers continue in the business, either through tribal or community enterprises or as individuals. They know the same satisfactions and experience the same problems as their non-Indian counterparts. Access to better legal counsel has permitted tribes in many instances to obtain more equitable leases or to promote ranching by tribal members.
Plains Indian rodeo dates back to the turn of the century. At agricultural fairs at the Crow Indian Reservation and elsewhere, rodeos began to be featured as prominent components of annual gatherings. The Crows took great pride in their abilities and accomplishments as bronc riders. At Rosebud and other reservations in the Dakotas, Lakota cowboys also demonstrated their talents in various rodeos. The best Indian cowboys, like Sam Bird in Ground (Crow) and George Defender (Standing Rock Sioux), captured world championship titles early in the twentieth century. Tom Three Persons (Blood) won instant immortality by riding Midnight in the first Calgary Stampede rodeo in 1912.
The Plains Indian rodeo tradition continues. Plains Indian cowgirls and cowboys participate in regional competitions, often instructed and judged by relatives eager to pass along their love for the sport, and they have also enjoyed considerable success in the Indian National Finals Rodeo. Names like Gladstone and Guardipee, Bird and Bruised Head are immediately recognizable to all those who cherish the history and heritage of Indian rodeo.
Peter Iverson Arizona State University
Dempsey, Hugh A. Tom Three Persons: Legend of an Indian Cowboy. Saskatoon: Purich Publishing, 1997.
Iverson, Peter. When Indians Became Cowboys: Native Peoples and Cattle Ranching in the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
Iverson, Peter, and Linda Mac- Cannell. Riders from the West: Portraits of Indian Rodeo. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.