by Jo Baeza
The calf breaks from the gate;
the quarter horse springs forward; the cowboy throws a loop, catches, wraps a
dally, jumps off his horse and races to tie his calf. If he's lucky, he'll beat
the clock and win a buckle or take home enough prize money to make it to the
next rodeo on the circuit.
The color and excitement of the rodeo is repeated thousands of
times in arenas across the country. On the White Mountain Apache Reservation in
east central Arizona, the rodeo is still the sport of working cowboys, but
times are changing.
Once Apache boys grew up riding, roping and breaking wild horses
in the mountains of their childhood. Cattle ranching was the main source of
income for the tribe, and to be Apache was to be a cowboy. Now there are fewer
than 100 working cowboys on the reservation. Of those, only 30 or 40 compete in
the rodeo. Once there were 300 or 400 cowboys competing in roping events at a
single rodeo, as many as the total number of cowboys competing today.
The crowds have grown bigger, the spectacle faster and more
professional, but fewer rodeos are produced. While rodeos were once held every
week or two throughout the summer, now there is one every month.
Rodeo season starts with an open team roping event in Whiteriver
in April. Canyon Day, about five miles southwest of Whiteriver, has the first
rodeo, in April, open to all competitors. The Head Start All-Indian Rodeo in
May is a major event, with proceeds from the show benefiting the preschool
program on the reservation. The ranching community of Cedar Creek, on State
Route 73, hosts a rodeo in June. Whiteriver has a Fourth of July rodeo, along
with a traditional Sunrise Dance and fireworks at Sunrise Resort. The big rodeo
of the year is held in conjunction with the tribal fair and rodeo on Labor Day
Weekend. During the fair, visitors can see exhibits of traditional Apache food,
crafts and dances, attend a parade, an afternoon performance of the rodeo and
night performances of Native American dancers.
Lloyd Susan, chairman of the Tribal Fair and Rodeo Commission, is
one of a handful of professional White Mountain Apache rodeo cowboys. He
started rodeo riding when he was 14. In the 14 years since then, the expense of
putting on a rodeo has steadily increased, and it is getting more difficult to
find people to promote and work on rodeos.
"The rodeo has evolved from a working cowboy's event to a serious
athlete's competitive event," he said. "The competition has gotten very stiff.
The person who's serious about it does it for self-satisfaction based on
performance and monetary benefit. It costs a lot to travel, so obviously, you
have to make some money to pay for it." Susan travels with his family all over
the West on the road to the All-Indian national finals. Last year, he competed
in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. "We have a
camper and horse trailer and we just take off," he said.
"The cowboy tradition is slowly fading away. As soon as they get
off a bull, they put on their Reeboks and tank tops and go back to town."
Rodeo announcer Floyd Massey said the biggest change he has seen
is "costs have skyrocketed." He said, "There are a lot of cowboys out there. A
lot of them have the ability, but don't have the money to compete. They have to
have a good horse and trailer, money for entry fees."
While communities once competed with each other for the chance to
have a rodeo on payday weekends, now few want to bother. In the past,
communities could raise money for needed projects by holding rodeos. Now most
of the gate receipts and concession money goes to pay for the rodeo stock, feed
and hay. Sometimes it takes three separate contractors to furnish bucking
horses, bulls and calves and steers. "Now some of them even charge so much a
run," Massey said.
The cost of stock has changed the way rodeos are produced. In the
old days, a cowboy had two chances to make money. "I would like to see a two-go
setup again," Massey said. "If they don't make it on the first day, they still
have a chance at the day money on the second day."
Massey tries to keep up with cowboys' standings by reading
newsletters. "You have to know quite a bit about the competitors to let the
public known what the cowboys have been doing. It keeps the public entertained
and helps build up the cowboy's reputation."
Massey announces in English and Apache. He said the public is
welcome to come and watch, take pictures, or talk to the cowboys. Most rodeos
start at 1 p.m. and include bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, steer
wrestling, bull riding, calf roping, team roping and barrel racing. Food and
drinks are available at concession stands.
In addition, "jackpot roping" is held every other weekend on the
reservation and in surrounding communities. Local cowboys compete for the
"pot," keeping themselves and their horses in condition for the rodeo or work
on the open range.
Apache rodeo has come a long way from the days when families
traveled by horse and wagon, camping out under the stars and holding rodeos in
open places. Cowboy Gus Quintero remembers when there were more cowboys than
spectators. "There used to be over 100 bull riders and 300-400 team ropers.
They'd come from all over - Peach Springs, Sells, San Carlos, Navajo," he said.
Rodeos were often held along the river below Whiteriver. "There
were no corrals, and sometimes they'd have to chase the stock clear to the
cliff," he said. "It didn't cost anything to put on a rodeo. We used the
livestock association stock from down here."
Quintero said the rodeo started changing from a working cowboys'
event to a sport in the 1950's. His daughters, Bernaline and Kathleen were
among the first girls to barrel race on the reservation. They competed with
boys until girls got their own event.
Like everywhere else in the West, the rodeo has become a
spectator sport on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Spectators can expect
fast action, color and entertainment. But the Apache rodeo is also an arena
where working cowboys can show off their skill and their horses. America's
cowboy heritage still echoes from the red cliffs and bright skies.
About the author: Joan Baeza has
lived and ranched in Navajo County for over thirty-five years. She wrote the
book "Ranch Wife" under the name of Jo Jeffers.
Reprinted by permission of the
author, Jo Baeza
Article originally published by
Arizona's White Mountains magazine, 1990 volume 36
webmaster's note: The White Mountain Apache Tribe continues
to provide many Rodeo events throughout the year. For information on rodeo's or
other tribal events, please contact the White Mountain Apache Tribe-Apache
Tourism Office at (928) 338-1230