Riding Buffaloes and Broncos: Rodeo and Native Traditions in the Northern Great Plains - Book

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After his remarkable eight-second ride at the 1996 Indian National Finals Rodeo, an elated American Indian world champion bullrider from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, threw his cowboy hat in the air. Everyone in the almost exclusively Indian audience erupted in applause. Over the course of the twentieth century, rodeos have joined tribal fairs and powwows as events where American Indians gather to celebrate community and equestrian competition. In Riding Buffaloes and Broncos, Allison Fuss Mellis reveals how northern Plains Indians have used rodeo to strengthen tribal and intertribal ties and Native solidarity.

In the late nineteenth century, Indian agents outlawed most traditional Native gatherings but allowed rodeo, which they viewed as a means to assimilate Indians into white culture. Mistakenly, they treated rodeo as nothing more than a demonstration of ranching skills. Yet through selective adaptation, northern Plains horsemen and audiences used rodeo to sidestep federally sanctioned acculturation. Rodeo now enabled Indians to reinforce their commitment to the very Native values--a reverence for horses, family, community, generosity, and competition--that federal agencies sought to destroy.

Mellis has mined archival sources and interviewed American Indian rodeo participants and spectators throughout the northern Great Plains, Southwest, and Canada, including Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Lakota reservations. The book features numerous photographs of Indian rodeos from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and maps illustrating the all-Indian rodeo circuit in the United States and Canada.

The federal government in listening to Christian reformers were convinced that the Native American must assimilate in order to survive. These reformers felt the reservations posed as ideal training grounds for transforming Indians into white men. American Indians were fully expected to give up their community bonds and tribal identities. By competing in government-sanctioned rodeos, Northern Plains Tribes resisted assimilation by reinforcing ties to one another and their horses. As a result, by the late 20TH century, the rodeo became a Native tradition. Plains Indian involvement in organized rodeos began with the acceptance of cattle ranching.

When offered the alternative of ranching to that of farming, the Plains tribes enthusiastically took it. Ranching was more economically practical in the arid Great Plains and was comparable to buffalo hunting. With the introduction of Indian industrial fairs, the tribes turned them into Indian reunions. These fairs provided an opportunity to gather, wager, give away horses and cattle, and to reaffirm status. This allowed them to continue cultural traditions.

Essentially, “RIDING BUFFALOS and BRONCOS” by Allison Fuss Mellis, gives a detailed account of the rich history of Indian Rodeo, form the early reservations to the 1980’s and beyond. This book does not just give information about the rodeo, but how the tribes adapted and used the industrial fairs to their own advantage, then created some of the biggest Indian fairs in the country. The author brings to us all the greats of each time period and what was happening in Indian Country. In growing up around Indian Rodeo I really enjoyed this book.

Review by Anita Comeau


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Additional Info

Additional Info

Allison Fuss Mellis
Book Details:
Paperback, 266 pages
Publication Details:
University of Oklahoma Press, 2020