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The Calgary Stampede has been a Wild West spectacle since it opened in 1912. In that year the population of Calgary reached 44,000 (eleven years earlier it was 4,000), and more than 100,000 people attended the first Stampede, including some 2,000 Alberta First Nations people invited by the organizers. Since then the Stampede has become the biggest Wild West show in the world. In 2003, when David Campion and Sandra Shields attended, more than 1.1 million people showed up. In a crowd that large, it’s sometimes hard to notice that the biggest rodeo in the world is still a gathering place for Indians as well as cowboys.
Over the loudspeaker, a disembodied voice announces that the Stampede has made some big changes this year. Calf roping is now “tie-down roping” and the wild horse race has become the “Stampede horse race.”
The wild horse race comes straight out of the early days of rodeo, and some say it is more dangerous than bull riding.
Sixteen unbroken horses are released into the ring and forty-eight cowboys go after them in teams of three men each. The object is to saddle a horse, then ride it across the finish line in front of the grandstand. The teams compete every afternoon for the full ten days of Stampede, the cowboys nurse their injuries with five-dollar beers, and on the last day the winning team splits ten thousand dollars.
Down in the chutes, “Big Joe” Lisk and his team are struggling to halter a black horse. Joe is a rancher from Quesnel, B.C., and he is on the far side of fifty, which makes him one of the oldest cowboys competing. He came to his first Stampede in 1973, rode bareback and, he says, “didn’t get nothing except for a hangover.”
His dad rodeoed back in the days when the men pulled cars into a circle to form the corral. The last real cowboys were Big Joe’s babysitters. “It ruined me for life,” Joe says. “They told me all about whiskey and wild women. Once a year they went shopping and bought jeans and a Levi’s jacket. They pulled their own teeth. Come to think of it, most of them didn’t have many teeth left. They called me Boy.”
When the gate swings open, the black horse leaps forward and Big Joe strains to hold the lead rope as the animal bucks and pulls. One of the other horses escapes from its cowboys and runs across the infield, hitting the fence at full tilt, knocking it back a couple of feet and sending the TV cameraman who was filming behind it up in the air and into the arena. He lands in a heap and lies still for a moment. When the horse starts toward him, he jumps up and leaps over the fence in a single motion. Meanwhile, Big Joe and his team have got their horse saddled and Blue, their rider, is aboard. He hangs on as the horse bucks and moves farther and farther from the finish line. Joe cuts them off, waving his hat to redirect them, but Blue still crosses the finish line after several others, too late to place.
After the race, Big Joe sits in the dressing room clenching and unclenching his fist and saying that it hadn’t been the cakewalk he was expecting. He’d had a hard time getting the halter on and the horse had slammed into his arm and pinned it against the chute. He cradles a bag of ice cubes against his forearm and walks to the infield bar. “Those horses were kicking and biting,” he says. “That one we had today was thirteen, maybe fourteen hundred pounds.”
Big Joe sits down at a table of wild horse racers. He tells about the time he was working around a chute and had his thighs pressed up against the rails when he noticed the other guys were laughing. He looked down. A horse had its lips curled back and was stretching its teeth through the rail, biting the air inches from Joe’s fly.
Big Joe wears a black vest from the horse racing association with four or five titles stitched on it, including one from South Dakota, where his team placed sixth in the World Finals a few years ago. “When you get too old to rodeo,” he says, “you do something like this and then you get beat up some more. I feel like a dinosaur.”
“Well, I wished last year that you were extinct,” another guy says. “It was too hard beating you.”
Two days later, an afternoon thundershower turns the arena into a mud bowl. Big Joe loses his footing and goes across the arena on his stomach, a two-hundred-pound man unsuccessfully trying to anchor a thirteen-hundred-pound horse. That day he arrives at the bar with his right arm tucked against his body, because his shoulder got dislocated when the horse dragged him across the arena. He relocated it after the race by bracing his elbow on a urinal and getting his teammate to push it back into place. “When you leave in a white truck with a light on top, then you’ve got trouble,” he says. He did that once. “Doc told me I had fifteen minutes.” When the doctor looked at the x-ray, he said that Big Joe’s ribs had been broken so many times he couldn’t tell which breaks were old and which were new.
The cowboy sitting next to Big Joe tells about the time he was trying to hold a horse and it bit his shoulder, then picked him up and threw him to the ground. When he got up and grabbed the horse again, it reached down and bit his thigh. “Horses bite and they don’t let go,” one of the other guys says.
An Edmonton cowboy said that he broke his nose four times the first year he raced. He was a skateboarder, born and raised in the city, and one night a bunch of guys in a bar said, why didn’t he try horse racing? He’d seen it once or twice but didn’t know what he was doing when he went into the arena. The horse threw him around and he came out saying, “I love this shit! When can I do it again?”
His role on the team is mugger, the same thing Big Joe does. “Shanking, they call it,” Joe says. “Just an anchor. I’m the guy who hangs onto the rope and gets drug through the dirt.” He says some of the best muggers are city kids who don’t know any better. “I guess you’d call it macho or stupid. The closer to the edge, the more we like it. It damn sure ain’t the money we do it for.” I ask what he does do it for. “Pure adrenaline,” says Big Joe. “It’s a hell of a rush out there when you could just about be killed.”
Ed Calf Robe sits in a lawn chair beside his teepee, watching the children’s parade and talking with his wife Marie and the old lady who owns the teepee next door. The kids are dressed in Native regalia, and as they pass each teepee, treats are slipped into the shopping bags they carry. The first time Ed came to the Stampede he was six months old. That was 1939 and he’s been back every year since. As a kid, he looked forward to the Stampede like it was Christmas.
“In those days you took your time going places,” Ed says. “Indians never rushed before. Not like crazy white man now.” Back then, the Calf Robes left their home on the Siksika reserve 100 miles east of Calgary early in the morning and set up camp twice before reaching the Stampede. The boys rode on horseback, the women rode in the wagon, supper was cooked over a fire and the family slept on the prairie. When they arrived in the city, people shouted, “Here come the Indians!”
The children’s parade ends and the kids go to the stage for the dance competitions. A photographer from the Calgary Herald comes over to take Ed Calf Robe’s picture, and Ed puts on his feather headdress with his T-shirt and fleece vest, then looks into the camera. He used to wear a headdress that belonged to his dad, but the feathers became worn and thin. A man on the reserve made a new one, the headdress Ed wears now, with eagle feathers that the Calf Robes received from Fish and Wildlife many months after applying to obtain feathers for ceremonial use.
In the morning, Ed Calf Robe’s son brings the Calgary Herald into the teepee, where Ed is having coffee. The photo is on the front page of the Stampede section and the headline reads: Culture by Word of Mouth. The article tells how, like his father before him, Ed has given his life to sharing stories about Native traditions. “We’re trying to educate you guys about Indians,” Ed says. “All that bad publicity we got from Hollywood.” Two of his granddaughters are listening. “Cowboys and Indians really got along; it’s only in Hollywood they fight. As kids, we watched these movies where the Indians turn around and take one shot, two shots, they empty the whole barrel and one cowboy falls. The cowboys come, shoot once and ten Indians drop. We used to all want to be cowboys.”
“All Indians are cowboys at one time or another,” Ed Calf Robe says. “Look at Tom Three Persons.” Tom was a Blood Indian from southern Alberta, and at the first Stampede he drew Cyclone, a horse that had never been ridden and had bucked off a hundred cowboys. In front of a sold-out crowd, Tom rode the black horse to a standstill, becoming Saddle Bronc Champion of the World and the most famous cowboy on the northern plain.
Ed rode saddle bronc and bareback in the 1950s. “Cowgirls like those Indian cowboys,” he says.
Marie Calf Robe comes into the teepee, and she and Ed exchange a few words in Blackfoot, which she spoke until she went to school. She was nine years old and didn’t know a word of English when she left home and moved into the dormitory at the school run by Catholic nuns. As long as they were good, the kids got to go home on Friday nights. They returned to school on Saturday before supper. Ed says that if you had braids, the first thing they did was cut them off.
“We couldn’t talk our language,” Marie says. “They were really against it. But they could talk French in front of us. And the way they talked, you know, I don’t think they were saying nice words about us.”
“Sauvage,” Ed says. “I always wondered what that word meant when I was growing up. And when I finally learned what it meant, I told them: ‘We’re not savages, we’re Indians.’ I told them that a couple of times. Boy did they ever change their faces—from white to pink to red.”
Later in the afternoon, Marie pulls out the buckskin she sewed for Ed, and beaded during the winter months. “Dad’s gotta put on his business suit,” their daughter jokes. As an elder and active member of the Indian Village Committee, Ed Calf Robe has many official duties and dons his buckskin and headdress almost daily during Stampede. “My family has a long background of what you call ‘politics’ these days,” he says. “The theme always seems to be cowboys and Indians. I told them, how come the cowboys always come first, Indians second? How about Indians and cowboys?”
In the evening, Ed and Marie Calf Robe leave the Village and walk down to the seats on the south end of the arena, where they always go to watch the chuckwagon races. When Marie was young, her uncle had a wagon in the races. She would go with her mother to the old grandstand, where they would identify the uncle’s wagon by the little oxford shoe that was tied on the back. Now, in their usual seats in the new grandstand, Marie and Ed and several of their adult children watch for Shawn, the oldest grandson, a popular outrider in the chucks. “I taught Shawn the same way my father taught me,” Ed says, pride in his voice. “My dad bought me a horse, a pinto horse, and he made me ride that horse. I used to keep falling off. I’d cry my head off, but he’d throw me back on the horse. That’s the way I taught my boys to ride. They were fast learners.”
One afternoon, more than twenty tourists are lined up outside the Calf Robe teepee. The family spent the morning moving their camping supplies outside, piling the mattresses and suitcases behind the teepee. Buffalo robes and beaded buckskin were moved in and everyone worked stringing up ropes to drape the buckskin for display, laying skins on the floor and setting out family heirlooms.
Marie and her daughter are inside, sitting in lawn chairs on either side of the door, sweating in T-shirts in the hot air. Half a dozen tourists are looking at the headdress, the bright beadwork and the faded buckskin tunic Ed’s father used to wear, which is a hundred years old and worth thousands of dollars.
A small boy points at the wooden bowls of berries and dried meat on the grass in the middle of the teepee. “Ooh, Dad,” he says, “there’s ants in that one.” His father shushes him up. “Pemmican?” the man asks, pointing at the bowls. Marie nods.
Most visitors don’t say anything. Those who speak ask questions like: “Do you still live in teepees?” “Do you fight with cowboys?” “What do you do when it rains?” A sign on the teepee says Please Do Not Touch Anything, but every few minutes Marie’s daughter has to stop people from rubbing the buckskin between their fingers.
Marie Calf Robe picks up the bowl of pemmican, dried meat mixed with Saskatoon berries. “We don’t have this very often,” her daughter says.
A woman asks what the stripes on the Hudson’s Bay blanket mean. Another visitor holds her cowboy hat in her hands as she stands in the doorway and speaks without looking at Marie or her daughter. “I love the smell of the skins, the grasses, the meat,” she says. “It must be quite nostalgic for you.” Marie doesn’t say anything.