BY JIM WELLS
Indian Relay Racing is one of the absolute highlights of summer racing in Shakopee, a spectacle of bare-back riding equal to anything Barnum and Bailey ever offered the curious public.
Not even those circus maestros had anything on the many indigenous peoples of the American West when it comes to entertainment.
Watch this week and you might even see a jockey or two emerge from the subterranean lairs of the grandstand to take in the proceedings from the winner’s circle.
Listen closely if you are near enough and you might even hear one say, largely in awe, “those guys are crazy.”
Basically, what awaits anyone new to the spectacle is an exhibition of horsemanship not typically found in riding schools or anywhere else for that matter.
When was the last time you saw someone ride three miles on three separate horses, changing from one to the next almost on the fly, and directly in front of the grandstand ?
Maybe last summer, at Canterbury Park.
The upcoming program of relay racing includes an event for women this year, as well. After all, indigenous women in many if not most tribes had an equal and sometimes greater say in matters than their spouses.
The relays are scheduled between regular races on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with the winning team crowned in front of the grandstand on the final night.
Here, then, are breakdowns and backgrounds on the participants and their teams, with some notes on tribal histories to boot:
The Shoshone, located in Fort Hall, Idaho, are believed to be the first Indigenous Americans to obtain the horse. As Spanish explorers infiltrated the West, their horses often escaped and began life in the wild where they created feral herds that transformed Shoshone society.
The mobility of the horse expanded their range to hunt and gather food. Horses enabled them to follow herds of bison with greater range, adding that meat to their diets in more substantial quantities, and animal hide and bone to other cultural and survival needs.
The Shoshone and Bannock peoples share many similar cultural traits as well as land which has included the Paiute in various places, also.
However, their traditional languages are distinctly different. Originally, both peoples were hunter-gatherers, following their food sources with the changing of the seasons.
The Shoshone language includes various dialects, although similar enough that they understand one another.
The Tissidimit team, owned and captained by Lance Tissidimit, represents the tribe and won the Canterbury races in 2017.
For a background on the Abrahamson relay team, you will first need to memorize the various tribal groups included in the Colville Confederation, located in Washington state.
Here goes: Chief Joseph band of Nez Perce, Palus, Moses-Columbia, Lakes, San Poil, Nespelem, Okanogan, Methow, Chelan, Eniat, Colville, Wenatchi.
Thought you knew something about Western indigenous people, did you.
A frequent visitor to these people in the early 1800s was the Hudson Bay Company, conducting business at Fort Colville where extensive trading took place. The confederation of tribes was formed around the same time. Trading transpired over a sixty-year period with goods such as beaver, bear, fox, muskrat, mink and raccoon.
Many of these people became residents of Canada after a boundary was established between the U.S., in this case Washington, and its northern neighbor. The Colville people have experienced numerous issues with the U.S. government regarding their reservation land and its agriculture after the construction of electric plants and the Grand Coulee Dam. Many of their crop locations and salmon reserves were destroyed by flooded lands.
The consolidation of so many different cultures created a hodge-podge of languages that has created communication difficulties at times. Jonathan Abrahamson is the owner/captain of the team representing the Colville.
The Little Badger team might just want to extend a handshake to the fellows on the Tissidimit crew, if they haven’t done so already.
Guess where the Blackfoot got the horse?
From their Southern neighbors, the Shoshone, who were moving north at the time, in the mid 1700s.
Another point about this Montana nation: Blackfoot is the name of one band. Blackfeet is the name of their reservation, the term used by the Federal Government to recognize the tribe.
The terms are used interchangeably, by even the Blackfoot-Blackfeet people themselves.
Various explanations are given for the derivation of the name. French traders, upon observing the blackened moccasins of these people, who walked across acreage blackened by their slash and burn methods, began calling them black foot.
A second explanation concludes that these people hunted the bison, who have black feet.
Watch Chris Carlson during the relays. He makes great exchanges, from one horse to the next. He is the tall one in the crew.
YOUNG BEAR EXPRESS
This team represents the MHA, Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, that is the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark wintered near these tribes during their Corps of Discovery expedition in 1804, the grand trek westward to the Pacific Ocean. They stayed that winter at Fort Clark, very near the villages of the three tribes. This is also where they acquired the services of Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman, kidnapped as a young girl by the Hidatsa. She helped guide the trip Westward. The Fort Berthold Reservation was created for the tribes by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. The treaty also granted the three tribes twelve million acres, although the reservation today contains a mere 425,000 acres and of that only a fraction is tribally owned.
This is a new relay team that has experienced several wins this year nonetheless. They are owned and captained by James (Tons Tons) Phelan. The crew includes Crow teammates who have been helping the cause. Sounds somewhat like an Affiliation, does it not.
This team carries the colors of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation of North and South Dakota, often in the news recently because of their protest against the pipeline they are certain will endanger the Missouri River, the source of their water.
This band was once led by Sitting Bull, the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief whose vision was a foretelling of the tribe’s victory at the Little Bighorn. Standing Rock was once part of the Great Sioux Reservation, a swath of land that was greatly reduced by the Allotment Act and other devious dealings described by the U.S. Supreme Court in its harshest terms as one of the great land swindles in world history.
Richard Long Feather is team owner and captain of this crew, and a man known among his people for his knowledge of horse culture. He also promotes racing on the reservation as a means for helping the young, similar to youth baseball throughout the U.S. He is fluent in Lakota, one of the three dialects among the Sioux people. The others are Nakota and Dakota, the latter familiar to Minnesotans who pay attention to their surroundings as the language of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the sponsors of the relay races this week.
AWA DAA TEY
Another team from the Three Affiliated Tribes at Fort Berthold, N.D.
A fairly new team owned and captained by Lloyd Vigen, whose two daughters also compete. One of them will ride in the Ladies Maiden Race.
The main rider for the team is Ashton Old Elk, an experienced man on a horse with numerous wins over the seasons.
Did you see the movie “Wind River,” the murder mystery on the Wind River Indian Reservation ? It was an example of what has been happening, without much news coverage, on reservations across America, the abduction and murder of Indian women.
This team uses its exposure to highlight an ongoing American tragedy, ignored largely across the country. When this team competes, watch for signs displaying the acronym MMIW, missing and murdered indigenous women.
This team represents the Crow Creek people from Hunkpati, S.D., who are mostly descendants of the Mdewakanton band in Minnesotan. They ended up in South Dakota after being exiled from the state following the Dakota-U.S. war in 1862. Some of them might have relatives in the areas surrounding the relay races this week, or surely throughout mid and southern regions of the state. His team had a shot at winning it all at Canterbury last summer.
Last, but certainly not least, the defending champs, the team that won it all in Shakopee last summer, a crew comprised of Oglala Sioux from South Dakota.
The captains and owners of the team are Ella and Stanley Brewer. This team spends a good deal of time recruiting and assisting others who want to participate in relay racing.
Stanley does the mugging for the team, and Sylvan Brown is its rider. The set-up man is Andrew Catches and the back holder is Gilbert Ecoffey.