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Rodeos: Never just for cowboys

July 12, 2007

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By Stuart Colcleugh

in a paper presented to the Canadian Historical AssociationSpring and summer mark rodeo season across Western Canada—the most famous being the Calgary Stampede (July 6–15)—which typically means herds of cowboys (and cowgirls) competing at events such as bull riding, steer wrestling, and breakaway roping.

But as SFU historian Mary-Ellen Kelm reminds us in a paper to be in a paper presented to the Canadian Historical Association, rodeos in Canada were never the exclusive realm of European settlers whose day jobs were tending livestock on ranches.

In her article, Riding into Place: Contact Zones, Rodeo and Hybridity in the Canadian West, Kelm points out that aboriginal people played an important role at rodeos from their onset in the early 20th century.

Rodeos were far from "idyllic never-never lands where the sexism and racism of 20th-century Western Canada did not exist," she writes, but they did serve as significant "cross-cultural contact zones."

Kelm, who holds a Canada Research Chair in aboriginal history and is best known for her incisive analysis of aboriginal health issues, observes that rodeo organizers needed natives to lend an atmosphere of genuineness to the events. Where you had cowboys you had to have Indians.

And for their part, "reserve communities, always struggling financially, found that inviting local settlers in as tourists raised much-needed cash."

These days, First Nations cowboys are commonplace and comprise a significant number of the participants at dozens of rodeos throughout the West. One of the most popular in B.C. is the Lillooet Lake Rodeo held every May in Mount Currie, the busy heart of the Mount Currie Reserve of the Lil’wat group of the Stl’atl’lmx Nation. As well, says Kelm, "there are many national and local Indian rodeo associations devoted to promoting the sport and preserving First Nations heritage, culture
and tradition."

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