Rodeo Reigns in the Hands of Native Youth
The Indian rodeo circuit is bucking nationwide trends that show a sport on the decline. Thanks in part to Native youth like Jordan “Slick” Phelps (Oglala Lakota), a 20-year-old from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the face and culture of rodeo is changing for the better as he and others continue to dominate championships across the country.
Jordan "Slick" Phelps (Oglala Lakota). Submitted photo.
Cowboy culture in Indian Country has a complicated history. From homesteading and settlers moving West along the Oregon Trail to childhood games where cowboys are “good guys” and Indians are “bad guys,” the relationship between the romanticized Wild West and Natives can be messy.
But Natives have been adopting and adapting pieces of cowboy culture with great success over the centuries, especially horsemanship.
The introduction of horses during the mid-1600s and 1700s to Great Plains tribes and beyond was revolutionary; these animals allowed tribes to travel, hunt and battle more effectively and efficiently. Many tribes, including the Oceti Sakowin, commonly referred to as the Sioux people, became known as expert equestrians and absorbed horses into their cultural and spiritual belief systems.
And along with equine practicality also came entertainment—namely, rodeo.
Jackson Sundown (Nez Perce), born Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn, according to the Nez Perce tribal website, is perhaps the most well-known Native rodeo rider. Born in 1863, he was known for being so talented as an all-around rodeo rider that other contestants would drop out of the competition when they discovered he was participating. Because of this, it’s said rodeo managers hired Sundown to entertain crowds as an exhibition rider for $50 a day. He died in 1923.
Over the years, rodeo has remained a popular sport in Indian Country. In 1976, the Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR) was founded. With more than 600 rodeos taking place in 11 different regions across the country, and affiliations with various youth associations, including the National High School Rodeo Association and the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, INFR is the most comprehensive rodeo association for Natives in the world.
INFR president Bo Vocu (Oglala Lakota) says participation in rodeo is declining overall. He’s not alone in that assessment; Americans are leaving rural and agricultural lifestyles in droves, and higher gas prices make traveling from rodeo to rodeo and raising/transporting livestock more expensive.
Despite these trends, however, Vocu says interest in rodeo in Indian Country is on the rise, thanks in part to younger Native rodeo stars and the help of organizations like INFR.
“So now when [young Native riders] go to these other levels like junior high and high school, they have so much more experience and can handle so much more pressure,” Vocu says. “They’ve already done all that, to the point where they’re already leaps and bounds ahead of non-INFR kids who have yet to be on those kind of platforms.”
According to Vocu, INFR is one of the only associations to incorporate junior events into its main rodeos, meaning many INFR contestants have been competing under the bright lights since they were young. INFR includes riders from almost every generation, from age 8 to 80, and emphasizes that it’s particularly important for Native communities to encourage their kids to participate in rodeo.
“It’s important that a new generation of Natives are interested in rodeo because of the opportunity that it creates as far as education goes, as far as the prize money, as far as how things have evolved through the years,” Vocu says. “I mean, the INFR is 41 years old this year, and there’s a reason it started—it was hard for Indian cowboys to make a living in professional rodeo. It’s evolved to where you see more and more Natives involved now. The opportunity for young Native rodeo athletes to be successful … It’s larger now than it’s ever been. There’s just so much opportunity out there, … [T]he racial boundaries are fading.”
Enter Jordan Phelps (Oglala Lakota), known widely as “Slick.”
Slick may have just turned 20, but he’s already taking both Indian Country and the rodeo world by storm.
His rodeo bona fides include back-to-back (2014/2015) world championship titles from INFR, as well as being named champion bull rider by the South Dakota High School Rodeo Association in 2015. Additionally, he took the title of bull riding champion three consecutive years (2013, 2014 and 2015) from the Great Plains Indian Rodeo Association. He took his first winnings as a calf rider in 2004 at the Little Wound Youth Rodeo School in Kyle, S.D. Many other rodeo accolades exist.
Tall, with rugged good looks and a contagious sense of humor, Slick reminds you of any other buoyant youth. His Facebook page is littered with memes, he uses emoji unapologetically, and he posts plenty of videos from his phone of himself and other riders.
But sprinkled among the tongue-in-cheek ex-girlfriend memes and celebrity jokes are posts about the Dakota Access Pipeline, quips about reservation life and photos of himself wearing moccasins while bull riding. Slick, who lives in Thunder Valley on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is purposeful throughout the following interview conversation to always give thanks to Tunkasila, the Creator, and to recognize his elders, family, friends and tribe, and he often references his culture and beliefs.
A true Lakota, Slick believes deeply in the importance of giving back to his community.
Slick Phelps. Submitted photo.
Last year, his family organized and hosted a rodeo in Rapid City. The competition, Slick Phelps Bull Riders Only Challenge, had 40 slots, which sold out shortly after registration opened on the first day. The family plans to organize another event on Dec. 16, this time with 50 slots for riders ages 16 and older.
“My dad put it on to give back to the community. Rodeo brought me a long way, so giving back to the sport and showing our love for the sport just makes sense,” says Slick, who’s prepping to compete in the INFR finals Nov. 8-12 in Las Vegas.
Native Peoples sat down with Slick to chat about rodeo, being Native and the future of the sport in Indian Country.
Native Peoples Magazine: How did you get started in rodeo?
Slick Phelps: I grew up on a little ranch in Rocky Ford, S.D., and one day my father was watching PBR [Professional Bull Riders] and I really liked it. I was about 4. None of my family are really big rodeo-goers, so it was kind of just random for me to like it. My dad threw me on a couple of calves we had around the ranch.
I remember I was pretty scared; but I was so young it’s hard to recall, and it goes by so fast that you don’t really know how to react. I remember my little brother got up with me. I fell off, but we just kept getting up and kept doing it all day. … I ended up loving it. And every year since then I’ve participated in rodeos
NPM: Tell us about your training regimen.
SP: I’m not so much about dieting, but I definitely work out, probably about four or five days a week, every night if I can. I jump-rope mostly. I don’t like to run too much, so I do jump-rope for cardio and my dad will help me bench. I focus mainly on my core to sit up and counter all the bull power.
NPM: What are some of the biggest rodeo-related challenges you’ve faced so far?
SP: Bull riding comes with many challenges; I’ve had many broken bones and concussions. But it's a mind game in this sport—you either run with it or from it, you know? If you love this game, then you’re going to continue to keep getting on.
NPM: Are there challenges specific to being a Native American in the larger rodeo circuit? And is there anything about being a Native bull rider that you find unique and special?
SP: To be honest, there are some challenges at pro rodeos that a minority athlete faces. We have to work extra hard to get the same points.
[For example, a] lot of times the chute boss will rush me. I try not to take it personally, but other people close to me get very upset. The boss won’t rush any of the others, but he’ll rush me. And then you can see it in point differences with the judges.
I try to look past that and just do my job of riding the bull. I can’t do anything but ride at that point.
I’m thankful for the formation of the INFR … as this gives [Natives] the opportunity to compete at a more competitive level with others nationwide. This helps me with the confidence and experience to compete in any circuit.
NPM: What’s your favorite thing about rodeo? What inspires you?
SP: I overcome the challenges by just having fun and riding. My family and friends believe in me and give me the support and confidence needed to keep my head up, be proud and keep on going.
I was taught to be myself. It’s important to stay humble and carry my cultural values in everything I do. I have many people that have been a positive influence in my life, from teachers to coaches, friends and family. Most importantly I give thanks to Tunkasila for protection and the many blessings.
I’ve always loved rodeos ever since I [can] remember. We lived in Rapid City; my parents knew how much I loved horses and bulls, so we moved onto the Pine Ridge reservation. My parents built a house, were able to get some land and began raising horses. We took care of bulls and cows for some ranchers. My parents then took me around to a miniature bull-riding circuit, Rascal Rodeos, every other weekend during the winter months. We then traveled around to ride in others.
There has to be a mutual respect between me and the bull. I respect the power of that bull and always say a prayer before the ride for both myself and the bull’s safety.
My favorite thing about riding bulls is riding the rankest one. Just the thought of riding the rankest bull and all your buddies congratulating you makes you feel 10 feet tall and bulletproof.
NPM: What’s something you think the mainstream public doesn’t “get” about rodeo life that you wish they knew?
SP: That’s easy. I want people to know that the animals are treated almost better than the people. The animals are athletes, too, and they’re pampered like a lot of athletes are. A lot of people think we hurt them, but it’s pretty much the exact opposite.
NPM: Tell us a funny rodeo story.
SP: Every rodeo brings me great memories. One time in particular I made an eight-second ride. The bull stepped on my rear, ripped my pants and boxers open. I didn’t realize that and walked back to the chutes with my pants and boxers ripped open. I was wondering what all the laughter was about.
NPM: What are your rodeo goals?
SP: I hope to be one of the first Natives to be in the Built Ford Tough Series in the PBR Tour. I’m 20 years old right now and hope to make a career of bull riding for the short while that I can. After bull riding, I plan to continue to be involved in rodeo, such as [through] judging, stock contractors, etc.
NPM: Lots of Native youth look up to you in your home community. What do you do to be a positive role model for them?
SP: It makes you want to go even harder when people compliment you. It’s just unbelievable because I grew up admiring people and now that’s me—I’m the person kids are looking up to. It’s pretty cool. I just try go out there and work hard and show kids what they can accomplish if they keep going.
NPM: What advice do you have for Native youth interested in rodeo life?
SP: Times get hard, especially for Natives, but just keep going. You just gotta keep going. No matter how down you get, just keep getting up and keep riding.
NPM: Anything else you’d like to share?
SP: I just want to thank everyone that believed in me. Thanks to our elders for their words and encouragement, the youth, my family and friends. Most of all to Tunkasila for the many blessings.
Sheena Roetman (Lakota) is a journalist from Wyoming who lives in Atlanta and is interested in stories involving sports, health, tech and media. Follow her on Twitter at @sheenalousie and Instagram at @kin_oiye. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Through Nov. 6
South Point Arena
Las Vegas, NV
South Point Arena
Las Vegas, NV
Fort McDowell, AZ
Las Vegas (NV) Convention Center
Slick Phelps Bull Riders Only Challenge
James Kjerstad Event Center
Rapid City, SD
Check www.visitrapidcity.com/events in December for more information.