CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The coronavirus has prompted cancellation of a charity antelope hunt that has drawn teams of famous, powerful men to central Wyoming for over 75 years and now faces growing criticism that ceremonies tied to the event crudely and inaccurately appropriate Native American culture.
The Lander One Shot Antelope Hunt has been held every year since 1944. Participants have included Roy Rogers, Peter Fonda, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Vice President Dick Cheney, 16 astronauts and the governors of 30 states.
Wyoming's governors have participated in all but two hunts since 1954. This year, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon was planning to invite Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a fellow Republican, to be on his team, according to Gordon's office.
The mid-September hunt has raised millions of dollars for conservation-oriented causes but lately has faced criticism for associated ceremonies in which politicians including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat now running for U.S. Senate, have worn Indigenous women's headscarves designating them as "losers" of the event.
Hickenlooper in 2018 wore a native headdress designating him a "winner" of the hunt, Wyoming Public Radio reported recently.
While the hunt takes place on the high plains — prime territory for social distancing — and rural Wyoming so far has escaped the worst of the virus outbreaks, banquets associated with the event draw hundreds of people.
Meanwhile, several of this year's eight, three-man teams dropped out amid concern about traveling during the pandemic, said Vickie Hutchinson, a hunt organizer and executive director of the Water for Wildlife Foundation.
"It may not have been a safe situation for everybody involved. That is why it's canceled," Hutchinson said Wednesday. "It's very sad that it has to be canceled but that is the decision that has to be made in the best interest of everybody."
The hunt is the latest major outdoor event in Wyoming to fall victim to COVID-19. Cheyenne Frontier Days, a two-week rodeo and Western culture festival that would have wrapped up last weekend, also was called off at a cost of millions of dollars to the state capital economy.
Teams in the hunt try to kill antelope with no more than one shot per animal. More accurately but less commonly known as pronghorn, they are North America's fastest land creature.
The hunt over the years has raised $17 million for everything for wildlife conservation to college scholarships, student internships with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and rebuilding a Lander community center that burned, Hutchinson said.
"It's a beautiful example of how sportsmen support conservation work," Hutchinson said.
The hunt traces its origins to "respect and admiration for Native American hunting skills" such as the ability to kill big game with a single arrow, Hutchinson said.
Only men take part in the hunt. A similar Wyoming Women's Antelope Hunt has been held in northern Wyoming since 2013.
Defending his participation in the headdress ceremony, Hickenlooper told Wyoming Public Media that a "hunt chief" put it on his head and "would have been offended" had Hickenlooper refused, a characterization disputed by the Eastern Shoshone member who served as "hunt chief."
Individual families have passed down practices associated with the hunt but the tribe doesn't sponsor, condone or participate in the hunt, Eastern Shoshone Business Council Vice-Chairwoman Karen Snyder told the radio station. The headscarf-wearing is a "mockery," Snyder added.
Gordon has called for the event to be held "with more cultural sensitivity."
A group of Native American leaders and organizations has meanwhile called on Hickenlooper to withdraw from the U.S. Senate race for showing an "unacceptable lack of judgement" by participating in the events.
Hickenlooper did not immediately return messages Wednesday seeking comment.