Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

“Early Native American  Indians in Rodeo

Towns such as Prescott, Arizona claim to have the world’s oldest rodeo (started in 1888). Payson, Arizona argues they have the world’s oldest continuous rodeo (started in 1884). Then there is Pecos, Texas who claims the right to the world’s first rodeo (1883) but history tells us that William F. Cody (AKA Buffalo Bill) staged his first Wild West Show (which also had rodeo events) in 1882 at North Platte, Nebraska. Santa Fe, New Mexico has a stronger claim to the first rodeo based on a letter written by Captain Mayne Reid from Santa Fe dated 1847 which speaks of rodeo events there during a roundup celebration.

The Mexican Vaqueros influenced the American Cowboy with their clothing, language, traditions and equipment, which in turn, influenced the sport of rodeo. You hear a lot about the Cowboys and Vaqueros (or at least their influence) with regards to rodeo history, but most do not realize the Native American Indian was right there from the beginning as well.

Many of the first “Vaqueros” were actually Indians forced into servitude along with the working class “Peons” in Mexico, who where all controlled by the ruling class Spaniards. Most of the Vaqueros found in the Southwest when the White Europeans arrived were actually a mix of those early Indians and Peons. These were the people who originally founded rodeo and many of the cowboy traditions we treasure today.

Even if you look at rodeo from a more traditional or “organized” view — there were Indians in Buffalo Bill Cody’s wild west show (probably the earliest show organized by a white man) from the start. The Native Americans who took part in the show were mostly Plains Indians such as the Pawnee and Sioux, but there were many other tribes as well.

They participated in staged “Indian Races” and historic battles, and often appeared in scenes attacking settlers in which their savagery and wildness was played up to the enjoyment of the crowd. They also performed dances, such as the Sioux Ghost Dance. The Native Americans always wore their best costumes and full war paint. Cody treated them with respect — the extent of which was demonstrated when he named the Indians as “the former foe, present friend of the American.”

Probably the best known Indian in the show was Sitting Bull who joined for a period of time and was a star attraction alongside Annie Oakley. During his time at the show, Sitting Bull was introduced to President Grover Cleveland, traveled to Europe and became personal friends with Buffalo Bill. Other familiar Native Americans names who performed at various times in the show were Chief Joseph (the famous Nez Perce Chief), Geronimo (the famous Apache warrior) and Rain in the Face (a Lakota who reportedly fought Custer at the Little Bighorn).

Jackson Sundown (born in 1863) was probably the first Native American to become famous for preforming events in rodeo other than playing an Indian — Sundown rode broncs.

He was about 14 when he participated in the Nez Perce War of 1877 (he was said to be Chief Joseph’s nephew). Afterwards, wounded, he escaped to Canada with a small group of warriors who took refuge with Sitting Bull’s camp. Sundown later came back up in the United States and eventually settled in Idaho on the Flathead reservation where he raised a family. During this time he became known as a superb horseman and he raised and trained horses for money. At the advanced age of his early forties, he started going to rodeos and wild west shows, mostly competing in bronc riding. He became a favorite at these rodeos because he wore his hair in a traditional pompadour with braids tied under his chin and he always wore bright colored shirts and angora chaps — he was quite a site to behold.

Sundown had much success as a rodeo hand. It has been reported that other contestants sometimes pulled out of rodeos because he was entered (fear of being beaten by an Indian) and at times stock owners would pull their stock if Sundown drew them. He had the reputation of riding buckers to a stop and taking any future buck right out of them. As a result, some rodeo producers hired Sundown to put on exhibition rides to entertain the crowds instead.

In 1911, he place third at the Pendleton, Oregon Roundup in a controversial decision whereby he and George Fletcher (a Black man) and John Spain (a White man) all wound up in the final round together. Spain wound up winning the title, but it was said that both Sundown and Fletcher were not treated fairly (probably due to prejudice).

In 1915, (at age fifty-two) he once again placed third at Pendleton. He decided to retire after that, but sculptor, Alexander Proctor (who was working on a sculpture of Sundown at the time), persuaded him to enter the 1916 Roundup in Pendleton if he would pay his entry fees. Sundown made it to the finals with two other cowboys (Rufus Rollen and Bob Hall). Rollen and Hall both made great rides, then it was time for Sundown. When the blindfold was pulled for that final ride, all those years of rodeo and horseback experience showed up for display. It has been written that Sundown became one with the bronc and was even fanning his hat at the horse as he made a legendary ride.

At the end of the ride, Jackson Sundown, was the 1916 (and first Indian) World Champion Bronc Rider! He had used his old range saddle (as he always did) and when the new trophy saddle was awarded, he was asked what he would like engraved on the silver plate — he told them, “Please put wife’s name on it.”

Since his death in 1923, Jackson Sundown has been inducted into just about every sports hall of fame related to rodeo you can imagine. You may not realize it, but the logo used by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum is a rendition of a silhouette of an old photo of Sundown, taken at Pendleton in about 1916 —making him the most viewed Indian Cowboy ever!