The rodeo season is upon us, and the sport is alive and kicking (literally) in the Inland Northwest. In Cheney, Omak, Lewiston, Worley and elsewhere, you can see ropers, riders, queens and clowns flinging limbs and eating dust in matches that pit humans against much-larger mammals. Maybe this athletic recreation fulfills a throwback urge to subdue beasts. Maybe rodeo as a custom and a culture simply comforts viewers with reminders of the rough-and-tumble origins of the Old West.
Rodeo has its attractions for spectators, but it also exacts personal costs on its participants. In the locker room of a Spokane health club, Steve Lebsack finishes his workout and dabs salve on scars healing from a recent shoulder surgery. He grimaces as he twists before a mirror. It was the height of rodeo season: June 30, 2004. Lebsack would spend Saturday riding bulls in Vancouver, Oakville and Sedro Wooley before heading east on Sunday to the smaller Idaho towns of Winchester and Grangeville. Come Monday morning, he would be back at work as a sales representative for Adams Tractor in Spokane.
That same day, at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, student Naomie Peasley was taking lecture notes. In the 2002 Suicide Race event of the Omak Stampede Rodeo, Naomie had been thrown from her horse. While being airlifted to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, her family by her side, she flatlined twice.
"I still have flashbacks and dreams," Peasley says. "The start of the race is signaled with a gun, and I get anxious and nervous and scared when I hear fireworks or other big bangs."
Like Steve, she plans to down a dose of rodeo again -- once her back and neck pains abate. In spite of her injuries, the courageous 5-foot, 8-inch guard played college basketball last year for EWU.
From the student body of Eastern Washington University, both Steve and Naomie personify the ethnic and gender diversity in rodeo today. Steve is a zealous bull rider, Naomie a mountain racer and rodeo queen. Steve is Anglo-American, a graduate in economics. Naomie is an American Indian whose great-grandfather, Leo Moomaw, founded the Omak Stampede. Both Steve and Naomie are robust athletes who have suffered serious injuries while following their bliss. Both were willing and even keen to tell their personal stories about the enduring sport, spectacle and practice of rodeo.
Inside the dozens of officially sanctioned regional rodeos every year, the gender lines are plain to see. Rodeo queens are the royalty. Besides heightening awareness of the sport in public appearances -- essentially doing PR -- rodeo queens aim to look lovely in tight jeans and high-domed hats with tiaras. They ride and preside in barrel races and grand entries. Las Vegas-worthy wardrobes for national rodeo queens can cost up to $15,000.
Men like Steve Lebsack do most of the riding and roping and wear the biggest belt buckles and hats, while women who follow them, sometimes dubbed "buckle bunnies," can prove useful for dressing and undressing wounds. Other women, instead of simply adorning the scene, prefer to be in the middle of the action -- women like Naomie Peasley.
As a form of America in microcosm, rodeo compounds its gender rift with ethnic and animal-welfare tensions. Rodeo queens once felt compelled to hide their modern haircuts beneath fake braids to imitate a more authentic Native look, even though plenty of American Indians have been available to compete. And today the Animal Welfare Council, an industry-supported front group, aims to dispel objections from animal advocates who clash with rodeo fans by choosing to "support the use of animals in recreation, entertainment and sport." As if in comic reply, PETA has a Web site entitled "Buck the Rodeo," whose opening screen features
Baywatch actress Bonnie-Jill Laflin, tousled after an apparent roll in the hay, along with the words, "No one likes an eight-second ride."
Rodeo carries the cachet of custom and culture for rural economies that have depended historically on natural resources. It also turns a profit, thanks in part to corporate sponsorships. Stock contractor Larry Peasley, Naomie's father, furnishes animals to rodeos around the region, calling it his "expensive hobby." On his Omak ranch, Naomie came of age under the spell of horses; she still rides every chance she gets. Rodeo fans like the Peasleys strive to keep ranching alive, define fit roles for women in a male-centered sport, integrate Anglo and Native cultures, and adapt to rodeo's increasing commercialization.
Rodeos Long Ago
The first rodeos took place in Mexico. There, vaqueros roped horses, bulls, anything that moved -- even grizzly bears, which are now extinct in the region. By 1888, rodeos had spread to the United States and Canada via Indian reservations and reserves, where rodeo now is a traditional form of recreation.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show brought glitter to proto-rodeos. His extravaganza featured reenactments of dramatic events -- bison hunts, attacks on settlers' cabins, Custer's Last Stand -- for the pleasure of paying customers. In 1887, William Cody's pageant toured Europe to grand huzzahs, although he died in debt. (Robert Altman's 1976 film Buffalo Bill and the Indians, which stars Paul Newman, depicts Cody as an alcoholic megalomaniac.) Cody had earned his name as he earned his pay, when the railroad gave him $1.67 for every bison he shot. His $500 one-month salary penciled out to 300 bison slain.
Integration came to rodeo early. Mexican horsemen were the first bucakroos. In the Wild West show that Cody led, Indians like Sitting Bull were included but mildly ridiculed. Geronimo, from the back seat of a car, made a show of blasting captive bison, whose meat his employers barbecued and served up to visiting dignitaries. Bill Pickett, a black cowboy advertised as "the Dusky Demon From Texas," invented the sport of bulldogging. Only 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 145 pounds, Pickett learned to leap from the backs of galloping horses, tackle fleeing steers, grab their horns, wrench their necks and bite their upper lips till they gave in.
Today's rodeo rules forbid contestants to bite steers. Animal welfare groups won a 1913 battle to outlaw Pickett's bite-'em technique. (He'd learned it in Texas by watching crossbred bulldogs clamp on the lips of cattle, bringing them to their knees.) While bulldogging in England in 1914, Pickett upset animal lovers, who believed that twisting steers' necks was "horrible steer torture." English police arrested him and fined him $25. His boss gladly paid the fine every week, considering it a cheap tradeoff for all the priceless publicity. And so the show went on. Control of nature was in Bill Pickett's blood. In 1928, while trying to lasso a coyote, he toppled when his horse stepped in a hole, flipped and broke its neck. He lay beneath the dead horse for an hour.
Early rodeos held particular values for American Indians. Animals (known as "Ones Without Fires") harbor powers not given to humans, it was believed, and some Indians attributed their own gift powers to horses. Rodeo also enhanced the skills needed in raiding, which offered the means to increase horse herds. Then, too, wild horses needed to be tamed, subdued, "broken" before they could be ridden. Broken horses then needed to be taught to turn, stop and accelerate on command.
Rodeo honed such practical skills. The sport evolved partly within Indians communities, so it proved to be a biting irony when some early rodeos barred Native competitors. High entry fees and long travel distances thwarted them in other rodeos. They also suspected that some non-Indian judges harbored prejudices, awarding them low scores in the competitions, depriving them of rightful prizes. In the often-bizarre pageantry that made up early rodeo, Natives played fixed and stereotypical roles -- mugging in sham encampments, wearing headresses and bringing ethnic color to parades. Such roles ultimately proved demeaning.
And so Indians formed their own organizations, like the All Indian Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and founded their own rodeo events, like the Suicide Race in Omak. Hundreds of all-Indian rodeos take place every year in the United States and Canada, and help to maintain traditional ties, much as powwows do. Annual rodeos become ritual occasions. Families and friends return home from workplaces far away to gather and swap stories, to compare injuries and awards. An elusive sense of place is strengthened -- and an abiding reverence for animals bolstered -- in ways that sometimes frustrate tender animal rights activists.
Those who utilize animals for needless food or callous sport, whether Euro-American or Native, rightly face litigation meant to shield animals from harm. Still, a most ticklish mix of ideologies rises when Indian riders or hunters find their traditional practices blockaded by advocates from PETA or PAWS. Said one wag of Makah whalers in Washington state, "If they want to water-ski behind a 50-foot whale, let 'em have at it." But the Makah tribe's harpoon hunt is but one battle in the complicated nature wars being waged across the West.
The Boys of Summer
Today's rodeo events, from the hairy to the harmless, include bull riding, bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, bulldogging or steer wrestling, steer roping, calf roping, team roping, barrel racing and more. Steers used for wrestling can weigh half a ton, while bulls bred for riding might run to a full ton: Rodeo is an extreme sport. Other extreme sports involve the manipulation of kayaks or bikes, carabiners or skis, but muscular bulls and broncs resist manipulation. These creatures possess intelligence and complex emotions that can prove seductive to cowboys. If some girls find bad boys difficult to resist, cowboys always lean toward volatile beasts.
Stockmen look for bulls and broncs that are "rank" -- they are tough and they like to buck. These are the trophies. A flank strap agitates the animal's groin, and the rider holds a chest rope with one hand. When the chute opens, a game of strength and wits ensues. Each mammal wants to overtop the other, making "roughstock" events akin to hunting, a contest to the death. (When we first met, Lebsack was carrying the book Idaho's Greatest Mule Deer.) Chaps, those cowhide coverings for riders' legs, save them from the chute, the fence and the animal's horns and hooves. Fringes on chaps, glittered or bleached when worn by the queens, can look mighty noble rippling in the air. (Steve informed me that the word "chaps" is pronounced with an sh- sound, as in "sham.")
Several days a week, Lebsack can be found in a gym shaping up for bullriding, his favorite sport. He lifts weights and runs, taking extra time to stretch. At 32 years of age, his remaining days as a competitor are few.
"I'm old for this game," he argues, giving himself only one more year. He admires the likes of Mead High School grad Brant Collier, 28, and retired bull riding champion Rob Sweeney, now owner of a Deer Park construction business. Compared to these guys, Steve says, he's "barely fit to carry their lunch," and in fact he was disappointed not to make the roster to ride the bulls in the Cheney Rodeo this year, a consequence of his low earnings.
If hero exaltation contributes to the sport, there is also reverence for the animals. Success for riders depends on which animal is chosen (in the case of racers) or drawn (in the case of buckaroos). Officials draw animal names for roughstock riders. Points are awarded for the animal's difficulty, the technique of the rider and for keeping one free hand in the air. A cowboy's flailing arm might measure inches longer after one rough ride, or so the announcer at this summer's Cheney Rodeo quipped. A rank bull or bronc will earn a rider a higher score, but the ride must last a full eight seconds to earn points. Steve sustained his worst injuries from a particular bull named Slingshot, and veneration creeps into his voice when he speaks of that bull. Maybe Slingshot had been fed too much gunpowder, another common gag in the patter that pours from announcers' boxes.
Shoulder injuries are common among bull riders, but less fortunate riders also suffer head or face injuries, making hockey helmets more common now. Brant got "whipped down" once, slammed by a bull's skull, and he has metal in his head. Steve carries two plates and 12 screws in his left arm; he has four plates and 10 screws in his face. You have to wonder if patched-up cowboys set off metal detectors in airports or become "magnets" for Frankenstein jokes. When the Cheney Rodeo began on July 9, Steve was flying to Oregon to ride in rodeos in Cottage Grove, Sweet Home and places in between. Not only is rodeo a young man's sport, but it is also a game chiefly of single, rambling men. Many wives and steady girlfriends would object to such schedules.
Frank "Bo" Campbell, a government major at Eastern Washington University, rode bulls when he was in his teens and 20s. Now 51, he looks fondly on the days when he started rodeoing at 17 years of age, weighing all of 140 pounds. In 1970, he moved to Oklahoma to study under Freckles Brown, the legendary cowboy and bull rider who is said to have broken every bone in his body but remained competitive into his 50s. Bo, however, wised up and retired decades ago. Now more interested in philosophy and politics, he would not have found the Cheney Rodeo's patriotic hoo-hah tasteful.
"In 1970, I landed funny on my shoulder in Libby and dislocated it," Bo recalls. Physicians there were getting tired of patching cowboys. Dislocations fixed themselves. "They'd load you up with morphine and wait till it came back," says Campbell. His doc, angry or impatient, wrenched the ligaments in his shoulder, and the injury worsened. "Later my opposite side got strong and pulled my back out of whack, so my spine curved," he reports. Eventually Bo had surgery, and a big scar to prove it. Asked how rodeo animals were treated, he admits that "Some contractors took better care than others. Some kept animals in hot pens, with barely adequate water and feed, trucking them a long ways."
Dr. Jim Gjesvold, a veterinarian and former board member of the Omak Stampede, scoffs at the notion that rodeo animals are abused. "No horse worth taking down that hill," he says of the Suicide Race course, "could be forced down the hill. Like the riders, they love to do it." Fifteen or twenty Suicide Racers chase down a 225-foot slope of 62 degrees, swim the Okanogan River, scramble up a dirt ramp, and sprint 100 yards to the finish line. Since the 1980s, at least 15 horses have died in the race, just as Naomie almost died in 2002. PAWS calls it "the deadliest horse race in North America."
Racing for Your Life
Naomie Peasely likes to compete with the guys. Growing up riding on the steep hillsides of an Omak ranch, she learned rodeo skills. She also got hurt. "I had a couple of emergency room visits. Just look at my face." I looked. "Those scars are from trying to cut off a group of horses and turn them toward home, but running into a thick tree and brush wall instead," she says. Twigs were protruding from her cheeks that day and blood was running down. "Yeah, they called me 'The Woman From Snowy River' after that episode. I've also been called 'Crazy Bitch' because nobody seems to be able to keep up with our bucking horses in a rocky, cliff-like pasture except me."
Basketball cemented her drive to compete: "I've been playing since I was about in the second grade. There was also soccer, baseball, tetherball and other activities on the playground that I could beat all the boys at." She dubs herself a "tomboy," and says it came as a surprise to her family when she ran for Okanogan County Junior Queen at the age of 9 and Nespelem Junior Rodeo Queen at 16. She won both those runs. She was 19 when she rode in the Suicide Race; she's 22 now.
Fitting into the mold of a rodeo queen was not too difficult. "I had to fix my hair. Speak properly. Smile a lot. Sit up straight with my legs crossed; I think this was the hardest thing to remember. Back home, I was the same old me. I beat up the boys and sat like one, too." She had to show skills with a horse, deliver a speech, address impromptu questions, and appear in "fancy western wear -- tucked in, yes. I had a crown and a sash I had to wear in public. I had to ride in parades and go to luncheons." And she had to compete. "My new love is the women's relay race," she says. "This is so much fun and demands so much of a jockey that it's really fulfilling to win this race."
An enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, she is proud of her heritage and her family's roots in rodeo. "My uncle Don, who has passed away, was a tribal council member. My aunt Patty runs a logging company and has been a secretary or judge of the Omak Stampede and Suicide Race for many years. My granddad, Ed Peasley, was a well-known horse trainer, trader and breeder." She sees little difference between Indians and whites in rodeo. "It is not really a matter of race. Rodeo is a culture in itself. If you rodeo, you are part of a whole community." That culture entails a swagger she characterizes as, "'Hey, I'm tougher and more talented than you.'"
The Suicide Race, also known as the Mountain Race, had called to Naomie from an early age. Endurance racing is deeply embedded in Colville culture. She had grown up with many of the past champions and knew she could succeed against them.
"Women had competed in the past," Naomie said. "Either they were in the back of the pack or they ended up where I did, the hospital." Yet she set out, full of confidence, to flex her skills and set her swagger right beside the guys.
According to the 2002 Omak Stampede president, the late "Cactus" Jack Miller, Naomie was leading the pack of riders down the steep hill to the river when she was thrown at the water's edge. The horse she rode, Black Charlie, had previously won the race. Setting up before its plunge into the river, Black Charlie slowed so fast he ejected Naomie, who had been whipping with one hand. She takes responsibility for the crash. Miller's official report listed her injuries as a fractured skull, a broken hand and an injured rib. Having been the leader of the pack, Naomie ended up being trampled by it.
In the helicopter, Naomie was having seizures and ceasing to breathe. Her scalp had a laceration at least six inches long and she was losing blood. Her lungs had to be pumped to remove river water that she inhaled when she fell, and one lung collapsed in the process. For months afterward, she needed a neurologist's care. Her pride was wounded too. "I didn't know how to deal with it and turned to alcohol and became depressed for months," she says. Cognitive problems have compounded the emotional distress: "Names and numbers are still difficult for me, when before I never had a problem. This may sound weird, but I had to learn how to remember all over again."
The news media were conspicuously absent in the coverage of her ordeal, as if no one wanted to darken the cloud that has been gathering over the Suicide Race since it began in 1935, three years after the Omak Stampede itself kicked off. No one seemed to want to call that cherished tradition into question.
The following year, Naomie returned to the race as a spectator, and "all the emotions came flooding back to me." One part of her strongly wanted to be in the race again. Another part wanted "to escape, to run away, to grab every one of those guys by the throat and ask them, 'What the hell are you thinking?'" Hearing her speak about her experience, reading her eloquent recollections of that time, it is hard to shake the feeling that she is speaking as a person who has come back from the dead. A trial-by-fire tranquility invests her, as if she alone had escaped to tell the truth.
Still, the magnetism of the event is too strong for Naomie to resist. That's why this weekend, when the Omak Stampede is in full swing, she'll be there, home again.