RAPID CITY — Kelli Powers-Word remembers, at age 15, listening to her greatgrandmother, Rose O’Rourke, then in her 90s, tell of a terrible time.
Rose O’Rourke was just a little girl when she and several other Lakota women and children fled to the top of a hill one December day long ago. U.S. soldiers were firing on and killing her friends and relatives that fateful day at Wounded Knee.
As the old woman told these things to Kelli, Kelli could feel the depth of history, and of her heritage, in her greatgrandmother’s words.
Rose’s daughter, Josephine, married Ben Powers, who was one of the first to put on rodeos in the early days of Belle Fourche. Josephine and Ben were Kelli’s grandparents. They combined the legacies of Indian history and rodeo leadership, and handed them down.
Kelli’s parents, Darrell and Bonnie Powers, have operated a cattle ranch near Kyle for all of Kelli’s lifetime, so it was natural for Kelli to grow up on a horse. She, like many rodeo champions, has been competing since she was 5.
The only interruptions in her growing-up ranching life were the times she would have to go to school in Rapid City, where her parents also operated a retail business.
“I used to cry on weekends when I’d have to go into Rapid,” Kelli said. Summers were wonderful, she said, because she could spend them at home on the ranch.
She was 14 when she entered her first serious competition, Ms. Powers-Word said.
Her dad trained her first barrel racing horse. Her parents, and their friend Connie Stinson-Price of New Underwood, trained Kelli and honed her skills to championship level. “I’m a Connie Stinson-Price product,” Kelli likes to say.
When Kelli was 15, she entered her first high school rodeo as a freshman.
She went straight to the top.
She won the regionals, the state, and the national championships, just like that, in barrel racing. After that, she won the state all-around championship for the next three years running.
Ms. Powers-Word can claim many successes in a rodeo career that’s spanned more than 25 years of barrel racing.
Ten of those years were with the famed rodeo cowboy (now ex-husband) Paul Tierney.
Those 25 years also include qualifying four times at the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association’s Badlands Circuit — once she was runner-up, four championships in the Great Plains Indian Rodeo Corp., and twice finishing third at the Indian National Finals Rodeo.
In 1993, she missed winning the world barrel racing championship by .17 point. The feat is even more spectacular, considering it was done on a new, first-year horse named Mayflower. Officials named “May,” as she is called, Horse of the Year.
Ms. Powers-Word, as if hard-core rodeo competition weren’t enough, also serves as president of the Great Plains Indian Rodeo Corp. This is her fourth year at the post, and she says emphatically that she couldn’t do it without the help of the organization’s secretary-treasurer, Bobbi Jacobs of Pine Ridge.
Together, they meet with sponsors, determine advertising strategies, set the itineraries, and plan budgets — a huge undertaking, even without indulging in competitive urges.
But there’s more.
Rodeo leadership and prowess, Indian heritage — these look like they’re filtering down through yet one more generation. Kelli’s 11-year-old son, Jesse Tierney, won the all-around title at the Bad River Invitational at Ft. Pierre last year.
Kelli continues to help with the family’s business in Rapid City, and she has added another place or two to call home, to take care of horses and people.
She raises, trains, buys, sells, and swaps barrel racing horses, and she has four futurity colts that she plans to start this spring.
Oh, and just one more thing. Ms. Powers-Word got married last year to former PRCA bulldogger Grady Word, re-establishing some priorities toward family.
Where will they go from here?
She’s not really sure, she answers with a breathless sigh. But she does long hard for a time when “I can have a closet full of nice clothes, I can go out in a dress and high heels, and not be driving a pickup with horses and a dog!”
Others have told her she’d be stircrazy in two weeks without the prairie winds blowing through her hair. She replies, “Well, I’m not so darned sure.”