The O’odham Wapkial Ha:tas (Cowboys Day) All-Indian Rodeo competition is the longest-running Native American rodeo in Arizona. The 76th annual competition took place last weekend.
“Because our weather is great at this time of the year, this is the first stop for Indian rodeo contestants and it sets the start of the season,” Richard Saunders, who directed this year’s competition, told ICTMN. “We had 200 cowboys and cowgirls from all over Arizona, throughout the U.S. and even from British Columbia and Canada, who came to compete in the two-day event.”
Chairman Timothy Joaquin, a member of the Tohono O’odham Legislative Council, said, “Being a cowboy is a profession that takes years of training, commitment, dedication, and lots of hard work to acquire the skills needed to compete.”
And, boy did they compete.
The day began with a parade that wound through the main streets in Sells, Arizona. It was a festive event where almost every resident came out to line the route.
“A weekend like this brings us together as a community to celebrate our tradition and history, uniting us as family and friends, and providing an opportunity to hold true to our Himdag, the values, practices and heritage that guide us,” said Dr. Ned Norris Jr. the Tohono O’odham Tribal Chairman.
Once the floats and marching bands passed by, it was time to “cowboy up.” The Master Rodeo was for seasoned rodeo athletes, ages 45 and over; a Buckaroo Division of age 5 and under, that challenged one another to stick horse racing, dummy roping, and wooly riding; and for the Pee Wee group, ages 6-9, there was ribbon roping, barrel racing, pole bending, and calf riding, while the more experienced youth competed in a 10-13-year-old junior division and a 14-17-year-old senior division.
The crowd walked under a S-ke:g Tas (Welcome) banner and headed for the Eugene Tashquinth Sr. Livestock Complex via a carnival, midway replete with the aroma of all kinds of foods: traditional frybread, tacos, hot dogs, and curly fries.
The arena had its own smells, (Eau de Equine) and the horses, whirled, twisted and bucked in anticipation of what would happen when the grandstands were full, the arena announcers began their greeting, and the prayer and national anthem had concluded.
To get the adrenaline flowing, three-man teams partnered up for a Wild Horse Race in which the chutes are opened and it’s the cowboys’ job to corral their critter in a very large arena and ride it back to the barn. In theory, it’s relatively easy. But in practice, it’s a theory quickly disproved as the 3-to-1 ratio wasn’t enough to get the feisty four-footed horse to cooperate. But, nevertheless, the crowd loved the effort and the stage was set for action.
Cindy Garcia, women’s team roper (heeler), is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
“I was about three when I first climbed on a saddle,” said Garcia, 48. “In my younger years, I was really competitive, but now, I ride more for the pleasure of just being part of an event like this.”
Hank Begay, Navajo, is retired as well. “I stopped competing because I started getting older and the bones got more brittle,” said the former bronc rider. “Now I’m willing to let the younger generation take over.”
Roger Dahozy, a Fort Defiance, Arizona, Navajo, and John South, a non-Native cowboy from Texas, have retired and turned their talents to judging others in the arena.
“I used to bulldog (steer wrestle) but got injured and when I recovered enough to ride a horse again, I decided judging would be a safer event for me,” said Dahozy.
South, who rode, roped, and wrestled steers and bulls for years, agreed with Dahozy. “I got a lot more sense than that now.”