Indian Relay Races have been held south of the border for as long as anyone can remember. Some say the concept started over 500 years ago with the Bannock-Shoshone Tribes in what is now the Southern U.S. States as a way to quickly spread word that an enemy was approaching.
It became popular at rodeo events in the past but got forgotten for a time until it caught on again in the U.S. in the 70s when it was as an added event designed to put more bums in the seats. It has been successful at that so far. Indian Relay Racing has become such a popular event in Canada that it has been added to the Calgary Stampede’s Rangeland Derby.
Audiences get pumped up watching our Native brothers ride bareback like the wind and not fall off the horse – most of the time. The race starts with riders mounted on thoroughbred horses that are painted like war horses of the past when going into battle. When the horn blares, they’re off and running.
The jockey or “warrior” rides the horse for one lap and then leaps off. The “catcher” or “mugger” grabs that horse as the jockey jumps on a different horse that’s being held by the “holder,” and then takes off for another round. This is repeated three times. Due to the sport’s chaotic nature, the field is usually whittled down by a couple of racers in some unfortunate situation that’s hopefully not too painful.
Siksika’s Blackfoot Warrior Party Horsemanship Film Society is led by Lavina Many Guns. She’s hosted meets at the Strathmore Rodeo grounds for the past seven years as part of a Canada Day event. Judging by the increasing number of fans, the sport is having some success at attracting locals and out-of-towners.
This year’s happening was another well attended affair. Eight teams competed in three heats over two days of competition. The first day went well with the weather cooperating. Sunday started off sunny with clear skies that lasted until the Lady Warrior Race was finished. Then the wind and rain practically cleared the bleachers just as the Indian Relay Races were about to begin.
But these are tough, prairie country folks, so the show went on with the Pretty Young Man racing team coming out on top in the relay event’s final race. Special guest Eugene Brave Rock, who played the Chief in the movie Wonder Woman, dressed in warrior regalia for Sunday’s finals.
The Calgary Stampede hosted the Indian Relay Races for five days after the 9th heat of the Rangeland Derby. The Grandstand show followed the Chuckwagon races, which normally is the time when the crowd takes a bathroom break or goes to get another brewsky. With the Indian Relay Races about to begin, not many people left their seats as the event proved to be too good to miss.
The warriors had one heat each night to entertain the crowd and ride for day money. The first night’s race was won by Team Old Sun from Siksika Nation, but not without some wild exchanges due to the switching area being too small for the transfer of horses. Monday’s race was won by Team Anatapsi – “cutie” in Siksika language – from the Piikuni Nation in Southern Alberta. I was not able to make it for Tuesday’s performance. Wednesday’s race was won by Young Money. In Thursday’s finals, Siksika’s Team Old Sun, jockeyed by Cody Big Tobacco, led for the final two laps. Despite a late charge by Thunder Beings and Young Money, Cody managed to hang on and win for Team Old Sun by about four horse lengths.
Tyrone Potts of Piikuni is the organiser for the stampede races and was very happy with the team’s performances. Asked if the Indian Relay Races could be expanded to two or three events, Potts said he was hopeful. Though the stampede is already quite a large event, the more exposure Indian Relay Races gets, the better.
Interest is growing in attending Indian Relay Racing as a stand-alone event. Beside the Strathmore and Calgary events, a meet was organised by June Many Grey Horses and held in Lethbridge on July 16 and 17. Dexter Bruised Head of the Canadian Indian Relay Racing Association produced meets in Maple Creek Saskatchewan on July 18, and Kainai held a two-day event on July 20 and 21. The finals will be held at the Century Downs Race track in Calgary over Labour Day weekend. Hosted by the Canadian Indian Relay Racing Association (CIRRA), it should be a good indicator of the interest level from non-Native racing fans.
If the sport can survive for approximately the past 80 years in the U.S. and then move north of the border, it has potential to become mainstream in the near future. This should be welcomed good news to the young people of Turtle Island because it give us pride in an event that could be a unifying force amongst our Indigenous communities. Teams that competed in Strathmore and Calgary included names like Morning Rider, Running Wolf, Little Buffalo Stone, Young Money, Sioux Foot, Anatapsi, Thunder Beings, Pretty Young Man Racing, and Team Old Sun.
I asked riders what motivates them to participate in such a dangerous sport, and they said the sport makes them feel proud of who they are and it is another opportunity to help steer our young people in a positive direction – something that has been missing in our communities for far too long. Horse culture was introduced by Europeans. It is one aspect of European culture that Natives quickly became equal or better at, and that’s something that can never be taken away from us.