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The 36th Annual Indian National Finals Rodeo Has Bling, Beef and Barrels of Fun

A first-hand account of the 36th Annual Indian National Finals Rodeo.
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There are no rhinestone cowboys here—plenty of bling, but it’s definitely the real thing—and unless you’re decked out in hand-stenciled belts with shiny oversized buckles, big hats and dusty cowboy boots, you’re out of style at South Point Arena and Equestrian Center (although four-footed-friends with hooves and horns are always welcome, regardless of attire).

The 4,400-seat Las Vegas off-strip arena was again home turf for the annual Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR), held November 8 to 12, with all varieties of riding and roping, from bareback and barrel racing to big bulls and bucking broncos. Ah, rodeo. lots of ways to make a living, no better way to live, reads one poster at the entryway door.

“We’re becoming a premier event,” says Donna Hoyt, INFR general manager, noting that this years payout involves a half-million dollars in cash and prizes. “Cowboys can come here and make some good money. And we’re an All Indian rodeo right down to tribal livestock.”

“We’re growing,” adds marketing coordinator Perse Hooper. “We increased membership by 10 percent this year, opened a Professional Indian Rodeo Hall of Fame and began junior-senior event competition [last year]. Rodeo in Indian country continues to be important to our culture.”

Performing in front of few empty seats, 450 Native cowboy and cowgirl competitors (representing 68 tribes from throughout Canada and the United States) challenged themselves and their horses to perform at top speed, chasing livestock and a lot of loot. In addition to the cash, prizes ranged from bigger and shinier belt buckles to stenciled world-champion saddles to brand-new horse trailers for the All-Around Cowboy and Cowgirl titlists.

The massive arena where cowboys compete is a no-bad-seat-in-the-house oval on the west end of the hotel-casino complex and directions to the arena are unnecessary as the unmistakable scent of livestock will lead you there. Once inside, the rodeo atmosphere is one of festive fiesta as chap-clad competitors exchange greetings and high-fives before getting serious about what brought them here—a quest for a world championship. With few exceptions, everybody knows everybody else, and many of the people here are related by marriage or tribal affiliation. For the few who started out as strangers, friendships were quickly formed on the basis of a mutual interest in rodeo action.

And there was lots of that as speedy steeds responded to rider commands that allowed cowboys to wrap a rope around a neck, leg or horn. As hooves kick up dirt, lasso loops twirl in the intended direction, sometimes stopping the pursued animals escape-path—sometimes not.

Before, after and even during arena floor activities, vendors in concourse booths plied their wares. If a product had a rodeo-related theme or was crafted by a Native artist, you could find it here—in all sizes and colors, too. In addition to the serious stuff like saddles, spurs, belts, buckles, ropes, hats, jackets and jewelry, some sellers displayed a sense of humor with plaques reading: if it isn’t on four legs and doesn’t run on hay, don’t even think of parking it here; i got a horse for my husband—it was a great trade; and god’s a cowboy at heart.

After the colors were presented and “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” were sung, a Native prayer song echoed through the arena, setting the proper tone and acknowledging respect for—and seeking the safety of—riders, ropers, racers and the animals they chased. “This is the only sport in which both human and animal athletes compete simultaneously,” noted arena owner Michael Gaughan, site host for the last four INFR finals.

Despite the professional level of competition, INFR is still very much a family event with children barely tall enough to coil a rope demonstrating their skill, and claiming awards.

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The kids’ roping elimination trials (children, not goats) were conducted earlier in the week with cowgirl Hailey Long earning junior looper honors in the 6-and-under age group; Brandon Ben outlasting other competitors in the 7-to-9 category, and Garrett Chee standing tallest in the 10-to-12 age group after a solid loop at 19 feet. First-place winners took home a brand-new saddle.

And then, after the arena’s dirt floor had been mechanically groomed and the pickup men were in place, it was time for the big boys and girls. Joe Beaver, three-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) world champion All-Around Cowboy and an overall eight-time world champion, tag-teamed with stadium announcers to not only confirm times and point standings, but to explain why a run was successful—or not. “Mistakes eat up the stopwatch,” he cautioned at one point. A particularly fierce mount got this praise: “That horse did everything but pull a knife to get that cowboy off him.”

Beaver also acknowledged that while it took only eight seconds of staying on a bucking bronco to impress judges, a lot can go wrong in that short period of time. Several repeat world champions missed their loop as calves zigged when the horsemen expected them to zag. Barrel racers speeding to cut tenths of a second off their performance time got too close to a stanchion and lost points. Some bucking broncos showed more juice than others to the dismay of the unlucky cowboys who drew the more spirited rides.

Same for the bull riders who drew animals that clearly resented being ridden and tried to express their displeasure by throwing the human on their back into the air and when he landed, adding a horn to the shorts for good measure.

When the last echo of the timer’s horn faded, the action part of the event was officially over. It was time to start the partying, and a large percentage of fans adjourned to the Grandview Lounge to whoop it up with their heroes. Some of the athletes skipped the party and instead packed their disappointment into their horse trailer for the long ride home. Others departed the arena both sad and sore, while the night’s victors got to enjoy the spoils at a saddle awards ceremony that didn’t get under way until nearly midnight.

With Beaver and fellow eight-time PRCA world champion Don Gay at the microphone, the victory lap got under way. Benny Begay of Rock Point, Arizona, a two-time world titleholder making his 17th INFR appearance, got the saddle, buckle and cash as bareback-riding world champion. Brent Dodging Horse from Calgary, Alberta, took steer-wrestling honors while 19-year-old Justine Doka from Fountain Hills, Arizona, was declared world champion in ladies breakaway. The saddle bronc top spot went to Rollie Wilson of Buffalo, South Dakota. Nine-time world champion Ed Holyan of Window Rock, Arizona earned another payday for best performance in tie-down roping, while two other Arizona cowboys, Victor Begay of Winslow and Roderick Tso of Fort Defiance took the team roping trophy. Montana’s Donna Small, a seven-time INFR contender, who rode her paint horse, Boogie, took barrel racing’s top spot. Omak, Washington cowboy Shawn Best Jr., took the final first-place saddle off the rack as his reward for winning the bull-riding title.

And then two of the winners were called to the stage as Kassidy Dennison and Wilson were declared All-Around World Champions—for the second straight year.

And they’ll all do it all again next year. Same arena, same festive atmosphere, same distinctive odor.


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