Why you should care
The image of the traditional cowboy is about to change.
As a Diné (Navajo) kid growing up on the scorched badlands of southern Utah, Keyshawn Whitehorse only ever envisioned one future: as a world champion rodeo bull rider. He caught the bug watching his father follow rodeos on television at night.
For hours each night, the teenage Whitehorse would stand on a basketball to help improve his balance. Punishing gym workouts saw him sculpt a stocky, low-center-of-gravity frame, the kind that 2,000-pound bucking bulls find harder to throw off. Today, the 24-year-old is living the dream, filling 60,000-seat stadiums and touring the globe. Last year, he became the first Native American to take home the Rookie of the Year title at the world’s most prestigious bull rodeo competition, the Professional Bull Riders (PBR).
Whitehorse is the face of a new crop of indigenous riders making their mark like never before in a sport and culture historically dominated by White, land-owning ranchers. With professional riders drawn from as far away as Brazil, Australia and Canada all competing in the PBR, the fact that six of the organization’s top 30 riders — 1 in every 5 — are Native American speaks to the level of skill this new generation of cowboys boasts. A glance at the current PBR standings show four Native American riders occupying the top 17 places.
In February, a Native American team that included Whitehorse entered the PBR Global Cup — the “Olympics of bull riding” — for the first time ever, creating history. Made up of riders from Navajo, Cherokee, Sioux and Chippewa tribal nations, the “Wolves” finished in third place at the event, held at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, despite having never before competed together. The team included the prodigiously talented Cody Jesus, the 20-year-old Diné rider currently perched atop the PBR’s 2019 Rookie of the Year standings.
Young Native Americans see other Native Americans succeed and this inspires them to work, train and take their chance.
Wiley Petersen, Coach of Wolves bull riding team
Those closest to the action say a combination of multiple factors is driving the rise of indigenous riders. But the emergence of stars such as Whitehorse and Jesus itself now appears set to propel even younger riders toward similar dreams.
“Young Native Americans see other Native Americans succeed and this inspires them to work, train and take their chance,” says Wiley Petersen of the Shoshone Bannock tribe and the Wolves’ coach.
Television and internet broadcasting have made what was traditionally a niche interest more accessible to newer audiences, including Native Americans, suggests Petersen. Socioeconomic factors coloring life in the modern American West also play a role: With young people increasingly drawn to jobs and lifestyles in urban areas, there are fewer local rodeos taking place now than a decade ago. The consequence of that, however, is that for the Native American youths who choose to stay on rural reservations, there’s a more direct path to the major rodeo events.
Community organizations dedicated to promoting bull riding among Native Americans have also grown, and there’s more money on offer for professional riders than ever before. The Browning, Montana–headquartered Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR), for instance, boasts around 500 junior riders — 18 years old and under — in its ranks.
Every fall, INFR’s season finale in Las Vegas sees up to $1 million in prize money up for grabs. “You take, for instance, riders such as Cody Jesus; he has been riding in front of a packed house in Las Vegas for a long time. It gives Native American riders such as him a huge advantage,” says Mike “Bo” Vocu, INFR’s president and a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
But it’s not been an easy ride. The new Native American success remains limited to men, for the moment. Female members of the Navajo Nation in Arizona have a healthy barrel racing circuit of their own but are yet to break into the mainstream. The specter of historical racism still lurks in the sport, even though Native American rodeos have been around — with much less success than at present — for decades. Last November, PBR world champion Jess Lockwood was censured for using a term in a Twitter post deemed denigrating toward indigenous peoples.
Ugly throwaway comments are not even the biggest challenge. The poverty rate among Native American communities stood at 26 percent in 2016 — almost twice the national average. The lack of access to the kind of quality equipment that helps keep riders safe — helmets and protective vests — as well as training, is a barrier for many young riders. Whitehorse was fortunate — he only needed to ask his father once about rodeos, and “he went to town and bought me a rope, some boots and stuff.” His father built him a drop barrel at home and sent him to a rodeo school. Most Native American riders aren’t that lucky. “The biggest challenge Native American riders face today is overcoming the challenge of breaking out of the poverty and lack of support,” says Petersen.
Then there are the obvious dangers associated with trying to stay atop a bucking bull for eight long seconds. Vocu says that last year, his 18-year-old son, Bo Tyler, broke his collarbone and shattered his arm while riding bulls. Though his family’s health insurance plan covered a portion of his medical costs, many riders have no health insurance. Federal spending on health insurance for Native Americans is a fraction of the country as a whole, and a study by Georgetown University found that in 2015, the rate of uninsured American Indian and Alaska Native adults stood at 28 percent — double the national average. “Many rodeo organizations are caught between offering health insurance as part of their membership plans or offering a cheaper rate with no insurance,” says Vocu.
But that struggle isn’t holding back the expansion of rodeo culture in Native American life. The INFR boasts close to 3,000 members across all ages, and the number of Native American–specific rodeo events has doubled in the past decade, as has the amount of prize money on offer.
These new cowboys, in other words, are here to stay.