Past and Future of Indian Rodeo in Las Vegas

I was lucky enough to be accepted to present some of my dissertation research at the American Society for Ethnohistory’s 2015 conference in Las Vegas at the Tropicana hotel. I know it’s a hard life, and to break the cardinal rule of Las Vegas, everything that happened there is going on this blog. The Ethnohistory conference is one of the premier conferences for American Indian studies and is always a rich and rewarding experience. However, given that this was my first time presenting at a big name conference, and I was presenting new research outside of my traditional area of focus I was a little nervous going in. Luckily my presentation was in the second panel session of the conference so I was able to get it out of the way pretty quick and focus on the important things like exploring Vegas and attending one of the rounds of the 40th Indian National Finals Rodeo at the South Point Hotel & Casino.

That’s right, I didn’t get to a show on the Vegas strip, but I did spend a night in an indoor arena six miles south that might not have been the best smelling place in Las Vegas but was one of the most exciting.[1] While not as big as National Finals Rodeo (NFR) that will be going on at the Thomas & Mack Center just off the Strip next month, the INFR had over 350 contestants competing in the eight major rodeo events who represent seventy-five tribes and First Nations from the United States and Canada. As with the PRCA, contestants competing in the INFR qualified through one of eleven regions that divide the United States and Canada. For many of the contestants, the prize money, totaling over a million dollars.[2] is far less important than the opportunity to represent their communities and their tribes on a national stage and have the opportunity to secure a national champion buckle for the tribe. National Finals Rodeos, whether the NFR, INFR, or the Gay Rodeo Finals that South Point hosted a few weeks ago, are always entertaining, but the added significance of the INFR makes it different from any other rodeo event you can attend.

While significant at personal, community, and tribal levels, the INFR has also found itself pulled into larger issues within Indian Country. Last year’s event was sponsored in part by Dan Snyder’s Original Americans Foundation. Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins football team, has come under increasing criticism from Native Americans to do away with the outdated and offensive nickname but has resisted citing heritage and some old, questionable polling data that indicated American Indians were in support of the team’s name. Yet as criticism mounted and the team’s trademark came under serious threat, Snyder established the OAF to provide funding to Native communities in the United States.[3] Part of this entailed supporting the INFR, which meant Snyder’s foundation distributed free t-shirts during the event and hung banners around the arena. The decision, like the team’s name, was met by harsh criticism from opponents who decried the rodeo organization for accepting “blood money” to put on the event. Yet in August of this year the INFR made the abrupt decision to terminate their relationship with the OAF, arguing it was out of line with their mission statement and goals. The decision, and the rationale beyond it and who actually orchestrated it, was a murky issue at the time and left open the possibility that the 40th anniversary of the INFR would not be held due to a lack of funds.

Luckily for everyone involved, contestants, Indian Country at-large, and this lowly rodeo fan, the event went off without a hitch this year. Upon entering the smoky South Point Casino and navigating your way through the flashing and whirring slot machines, the $9.99 all-you-can-eat buffet, and the Benny Binion[4] statue and wall of cattle brands, you accend the INFR decorated stairs and enter the small arena. Upon entering two things hit you in the face. First, you can clearly tell you’re at a rodeo and animals aren’t shy about where and when they relieve themselves. Secondly, the Indian arts & crafts, frybread, Indian tacos, and ceremonial dancers tell you know this is an Indian rodeo.

The small arena slowly filed in by the time we hit the customary 7PM start time, when the rodeo began under a dark house with a performance by Armond Duck Chief, a steer wrestler, who performed one of his songs. The grand entrance involved the contestants walking down the arena stairs handing out signed cards (we walked away with two). Afterwards we had three national anthems, the first for Native America was an honor song, followed by the Canadian National Anthem for all of the First Nation representatives, and finally the United States Anthem which concluded with the announcer asking for anyone who is “Proud to be Native American.” With the bareback horses loaded into the bucking chutes it was time to rodeo.

Many of the contestants throughout the night were wearing purple shirts in order to raise awareness about Diabetes. Unfortunately, diabetes has become a serious issue for Native Americans throughout the country with the National Institution of Health labelling it an “epidemic”. Statistics about diabetes are usually one of the things included in articles highlighting the “plight” of Native Americans on reservations throughout the country. While the articles have their share of issues, namely a failure to acknowledge the centrality of US policies towards contributing to the issue, the fact that the rodeo devoted a night towards raising awareness about the disease was another, although more muted, sign of what we were watching.

For all the differences, the INFR is still a rodeo and as with any other rodeo, the competition was tough, and many of the contestants, bruised and battered from a year of competing, found themselves just trying to get through to the short go on Saturday night. A number of competitors were competing with injuries ranging from sprained ankles, to various hand and wrist injuries, including one with a severely dislocated finger that the announcers found pleasure in discussing and championing the rider’s toughness prior to his ride. A steer wrestler had to be helped out of the arena after missing his steer and re-injuring his ankle. Unfortunately, both wouldn’t make it to Saturday night, ending their seasons. While everything about the INFR is strikingly different from many non-Native rodeos, the basics of the rodeo remain the same, a lot of broken bones, and small moments of elation for those who survive.

One notable thing about Friday night’s INFR performance was the fact that the organization held a special commemoration of the past champions in honor of the 40th anniversary of the event. The collection of past champions, original founders of the organization, and important managers, served as a reminder of the rodeo’s past while the performances of the younger generations in the junior events earlier in the day along with barrel racers as young as eleven years old in the main event highlighted the importance of Indian rodeo going forward. The main event also had at least one father and son team competing in the team roping and many of the past champions had children competing in this year’s event. As Peter Iverson noted in his book on Native cattle ranching, Indian rodeos, like their non-Native counterparts, are important familial events. As a result of all of this, attending the INFR this year had significance far greater than any other rodeo I’ve ever attended.

If you’re ever in Vegas and have the opportunity to take in a national finals rodeo of any kind, do it. But if you’re ever in Vegas and have the opportunity to go to the Indian National Finals Rodeo, it’d be downright sinful not to take up the opportunity. If you can’t get to Vegas, try to venture out to a local Indian rodeo, Oklahoma has a large number of rodeos throughout the summer months and, as evidenced by the number of Oklahoma representatives at the INFR, the state has some of the highest levels of competition in the country.

Some more photographs of the event:

  1. Best class-related experience ever. 

  2. For comparison, the total prize pot at the NFR is over $6 million. 

  3. The R*dskins' trademark was originally revoked in the 1990s, but restored on appeal. The Redskins lost their trademark earlier this year, but the decision is again in appeal and is currently being bankrolled by the NFL. 

  4. Side note on Binion, not only is he the founder of Binion’s Casino in Downtown Las Vegas which began the World Series of Poker, he was also a major player in pulling the NFR away from Oklahoma City in 1985. Binion, as detailed by Texas Monthly, gained the nickname “Cowboy” less for his ability with horses, than for his willingness to put bullets in people. The Texas Monthly article is worth checking out for a history of the Dallas/Fort Worth area’s seedy side during the first half of the twentieth century.