Members of Montana’s Blackfeet Tribe are accustomed to being on their own for long periods of time. In their part of the world, the population density away from towns runs less than one person every five or 10 square miles, and the land shapes the people and how they live. Once called Lords of the Plains and The Most Powerful Tribe in North America, their tribal website notes: “We didn’t rise to the position by chance or favor; we did it through strength of will, boldness, toughness, an absolute unwillingness to lose.… ”
Those are all characteristics you’ll find in rodeo cowboys, and in Beaver Bird, who, at the age of 71, still saddles up to ride and rope in arena competitions. “I started about the age of 10,” he says. “There were seven boys in the family and we grew up on a ranch with cattle to chase, so we had to learn how to ride. It wasn’t just for fun, it was a tool to help us do our work.”
When the chores were completed, all the Bird brothers joined other youth in the town of Browning, Montana to build their own little rodeo arena, complete with bucking chutes, where they’d ride calves and play around. “It was rural countryside, so we made our own entertainment,” he says.
They graduated to junior rodeos and eventually all the boys-turned-men kept their rodeo ways as ropers and riders, some specializing in bareback and bulldogging while others settled on calf roping and team roping. “I’ve done all the rodeo events, but I was awful crazy back then, a devil for punishment, and I specialized in calf- and team-roping and bull-riding.
“The first time I competed, as I put my hand on the rope and got ready to tighten down, my main thought was, What the hell am I doing here anyway? But by then it was too late to back out and I had to get thrown off before I could limp out of the arena.”
Bird comes from a long line of athletes. His grandfather, Sam Bird, played football with the legendary Jim Thorpe at Carlisle Indian School. Not just played—he was team captain in 1911.
In the early days, Bird chased the rodeo circuit to earn small purses to help with living expenses, and he paid a hefty price to earn those meager paydays. “I’ve had a few broken bones—wrist, ankle—and a shoulder completely worn out that required surgery,” he says, “but broken bones are badges of honor that come with the territory. I’ve been doing this for more than 60 years now, and I’m still able to do it and have fun in the process. I pay a price the next day, waking up stiff and sore, but I’ll keep doing it till I can’t do it any more.”
Acknowledging that rodeo is still a big thing in Indian country, Bird says he helps manage the Blackfeet Tribe’s rodeo and fairgrounds during the summer, when youngsters compete in rodeo action every couple of weeks. “It’s well worth the effort even if only two or three kids go on to higher levels of competition, and it’s a good way to emphasize the ‘stay in school’ message because rodeo can take young Indian cowboys a long ways. We’ve got guys that are now going to college on full ride rodeo scholarships.”
As a sport, the popularity of rodeo is increasing and young people now have a lot of role models to look up to. “Back when I grew up, our models were hard-drinking, fighting men, but nowadays you’ve got guys that set a better example and a lot of our Indian cowboys play that part.”
As Bird mentally prepared for another night in the saddle at the recent Indian National Finals Rodeo, he said that he’d met a lot of good folks “up and down the road,” and he still liked both the competition and the competitors. “You’ve got to have the will and the heart to maintain that competitive spirit.
“When I qualified for the [Indian National Finals Rodeo], they sent me a questionnaire asking me to name my accomplishments through rodeo. Most of my accomplishments were so long ago I don’t remember them any more, but I’m 71 and still able to rope and that’s an accomplishment in itself.”