Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Part of the Native American renaissance on reservations has been due to “re-birthing” the past, bringing back once traditional practices that were suppressed by white overseers.  One of the most stirring returns has been the revival of Indian Relay Racing.  The proof is in the video linked below:

There is personal meaning for me in this phenomenon through a peripheral relationship in the Sixties.  Pairing up with Bob Scriver meant that I needed a horse, so I bought one for $100 from Don MacRae who had used it for pack trips, since it was an old horse with a scabby problem on its head that looked like mange but wasn’t.  It was an old Bullshoe relay race horse, a tall brown gelding probably descended from cavalry mounts.  Diverting cavalry horses and railroad horses accounted for the origins of many horses on the rez, even into the Sixties.

Bob provided a saddle. He wanted me to ride with him early in the morning.  The first morning I woke up in Browning in my little apartment where the windows looked across an alley and then an empty lot at the Catholic Church, I heard the thunder of hooves.  Before I was quite awake, the white legs of a galloping horse — and boots in stirrups — rushed past that window.  I had no idea who it was.  Later I realized it was Bob  By the next summer, when I was still living there, he would lead my horse up to my window and I would rush out --tucking in my shirttail -- to mount up.

The old brown horse’s improbable name was Skeeter.  He was my “learning horse” and would not do anything he thought was unwise or not according to horse protocol.  You could ride him in any direction as far as you wanted and when you turned around for home, he was there in fifteen minutes.  Bob’s policy was only two words:  “Keep up.”  His horse was broke for bull-dogging and had two speeds:  greased lightning and stop.  Skeeter could and would keep up with Gunsmoke, Bob’s beloved white horse.  Skeeter also stopped abruptly, with the goal of throwing off the rider.

My biggest problem was getting on the horse, even though in those days I was skinnier and had more muscle.  If I used an overturned bucket as a step, Skeeter knew just the right time to kick it out from under me so I’d plant my face instead of my keister in the saddle.  I’d line him up with the corral rail fence, and he’d go perpendicular just as I threw my leg out.  But I didn’t have to whip him to make him go faster.  He’d been quirted in races so thoroughly that all I had to do was hold a twig out to the side far enough for him to see it, and he’d go for miles, rocking along.  There were fewer fences then.

I never did fall off (it was a long way to the ground) but I had no pride about how I stayed on, gripping the horn or whatever else came to hand.  I had no thigh muscles and not much balance.  Bob had two pieces of riding advice: “lean back” and “keep your heels down.”  I bought some boots but the first time I wore them in snow, they disintegrated.  Cheap.

In the early Sixties, the one-time fairgrounds were nothing but a short row of a few stalls in a weathered little tumble of shed.  That’s where I kept my horse: no rent, no permission, total ignorance.  I went out daily with water and I must have taken hay, though I picketed him sometimes which was hopeless because he became mercilessly entangled. and then I tried hobbling, which rubbed his thin thoroughbred ankle skin raw.  He wanted to go back to Trombley’s field where the other horses were.  Once at dawn I met him on the highway, intent on going forward with his front legs tied together, sort of rowing along.  People looked at me sideways and shook their heads.  Clueless Napi-ahki.

It was nothing like today’s sophisticated horse culture where people take lessons and ride in circles in big covered arenas.  Today the Browning fairgrounds are a proper regulation racetrack with well-built stands and respectable stables.  I’ve never attended anything there.  It seems like a foreign country to me.

Nor did I understand anything about Bob’s motives and practices.  He was old enough to be my father and trying to reach back to his youth, which was in the 1920’s.  He needed me to be along in case someone had to go for help and because I was so impressed that I trusted him entirely and that gave him confidence.  If he lost his nerve, he got mad at me and that brought it back.  There was little talking.

This PBS video about Indian Relays impressed me in part because these young guys (no female riders) are just like the Blackfeet, Metis, Cree, and mixed tribe (why isn’t there a word for them yet?) kids I was teaching in the Sixties, except these riders are focused and they have strong male mentors, who are handling them as much as the horses.  There’s just enough chaos and chance involved to offer good lessons about how to manage oneself in a world that’s always going cattywampus.  Like a rez, for instance.

Dutch Lunak

An interesting development was the connection of relay racing with stunt riding for the movies during a little spurt of Westerns in the Nineties.  The competitors were longhairs so they didn’t have to worry about their wigs falling off, and they were rodeo hands and ranchers who weren’t afraid of livestock or getting hurt.  The local story was recounted by John Gill in this linked article:   http://www.cutbankpioneerpress.com/glacier_reporter/news/article_5b039cad-f685-58dd-affc-f9c2d74f3461.html  

Jobs were not just stunt riding, but also caring for the horses and teaching the actors how to ride.  Then there were spin-offs, like classes in horsemanship for tourists on the rez or training how to be a stunt double.  When a film is being shot on location, the demand for housing and food are high.  The good part is that the quality of the final product doesn’t matter so much as that the producers, cast and crew have good experiences, which locals know how to do.  A sense of humor is crucial.

These folks far outclass me or even Bob.  But more importantly, the contact with professionals who come to the area, the experiences when locals go on location in other places, and the sudden awareness of the whole realm of film in a place where there was no television in the Sixties and the “show house” burned down in the Seventies, has thrown open local people’s lives to the world.  Horses were the unexpected key.  Now we need scripts with horses in them -- but there’s no need for stereotypical 19th century battles.  You don’t need feathers to be an Indian.  But you might need a horse.  A horse can teach you things.  Like tenacity.


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