Some of the best cowboys in the country gathered in Payson last weekend.
Didn’t matter a bit that they were all Indians.
Well, actually, maybe it does matter they were Native Americans, gathered for the regional finals the Southwestern Indian Rodeo Association, on a perfect day in a nearly empty arena.
Maybe when all the other cowboys have started listening to rap music and dickering about the size of the prize, the Navajo and Apache and Tohono O’dham and Pueblo and Sioux cowboys will still show up to do what they love without worrying about the purse or the number of people in the stands.
Turns out, Native Americans have been joyfully performing near-miracles on horseback for 300 years — ever since the arrival Spanish with their horse herds transformed their lifeways. They gather still for informal matchups on the dusty expanse of the Navajo Reservation and elsewhere, racing, betting and gossiping as the fathers of their fathers of their fathers have always done.
So the Tonto Apache Tribe sponsored the finals here in Payson last weekend, which drew the best Indian riders, ropers and bull riders from across the country. Please note: None of the May and August bull riders with their sponsors and the big rodeo buildup hung on for the full eight seconds — but two of the three bull riders rode it out on Saturday afternoon. The one fellow who didn’t instead got bucked all over the back of that 1,500-pound beast before he finally went airborne — a performance that boggled me no matter how many times I reviewed the sequence recorded at a 500th of a second in my camera.
But mostly I was captivated by the little girl with the huge eyes in her purple shirt. She waited somberly amidst great coils of rope the chute to open and the calf to run. She barely looked old enough to climb on top of that horse, much less twirl a rope at a gallop.
Shows what I know. She bolted past the yellow barrier rope with perfect timing to chase that calf down — two calves out there really, one in a purple shirt. She dropped the loop perfectly, then trotted back to the gate — still owl-eyed and wordless.
She climbed down and stood quietly. Didn’t matter a bit to her the stands were empty. Didn’t matter a bit to her whether she collected any prize money. She just stood with her face full of wonder, looking up at that beautiful white horse.
Now, that’s rodeo.