Mountain West In Memoriam: Family, Rodeo Community Remembers Karlets Dennison
Karlets Dennison's favorite place to be was on a horse. Preferably with loved ones riding alongside him.
"That was his love. His horses, his ranch, his rodeo," said his wife Debbie Jackson-Dennison. "And he loved sharing it with his kids and his granddaughter."
But in the last months of his life, Karl didn't see much of his friends or family. He sat out the rodeo season. He and Debbie cancelled family gatherings at their ranch in Tohatchi, New Mexico, to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19. He sent daily snapchat videos to stay connected with his three adult children, and regularly called to check in on friends.
"He had friends all over the country, all over. So, there were a lot of people that were shocked at what happened to him," Debbie said.
Despite months of strict social distancing, Karl and Debbie tested positive for COVID-19 in early December. Several days later, Karl was hospitalized with low blood-oxygen levels. He passed away on January 3 at age 63.
"I'm just so sorry that it happened like this," Debbie said through tears. "If he had to pass, it could've been another way. It was bad. It was so bad."
Karlets Dennison was born in Gallup, New Mexico, and raised in Tohatchi. He was a citizen of the Navajo Nation, born to Tł'ógí (Weaver/Zia people) and born for Ta'neeszahnii (Tangle/Badlands people). His maternal grandfather was Kinyaa'áanii (Towering House people) and his paternal grandfather was Tó Dích'íi'nii (Bitter Water people).
Karl was a fifth generation descendant of Chief Manuelito, and inherited a strong sheep and cattle ranching legacy. He grew up speaking Navajo, working on his family's ranch and, eventually, competing in rodeos.
"We met through rodeo," Debbie said. "He was a very well-known cowboy back in the day. Very well-loved, very handsome."
Together, they enrolled at Navajo Community College, now known as Diné College, where Karl was part of the school's first rodeo team to qualify for the College National Finals Rodeo in 1982. He also made a name for himself on the professional circuit. He held the Indian National Finals Rodeo All-Around (1978) and Senior Team Roping (2010) titles, among others.
"He was such a good calf roper and steer wrestler and team roper," said Lyman Colliflower. "He was good at all three. And there's not a lot of guys around that are good at all the timed events, but Karl really was."
Colliflower says his friend and former coach was more than a good competitor. Unlike some rodeo athletes, Karl broke, trained, and cared for his own horses.
"No better words can be said about a man than that he's careful of his horses, and Karl certainly was a horseman," Colliflower said. "And a real cowboy - cowboy as they come."
Colliflower came all the way from the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana to compete on the Diné College rodeo team in the 1990s, when Karl was the coach. He said Karl was "tough but kind," and made him feel at home in the Southwest.
"Moving that far away from home, I didn't have family around," Colliflower said. "I spent a lot of time at Karl's house and ate a lot at their dinner table and actually travelled to a lot of rodeos with them."
There's one trip he'll always remember. Colliflower was travelling to a rodeo in southern New Mexico with Karl, Debbie and their three young children.
"Kassidy, she was like three years old, and we drove past this yard sale and she threw a fit and started crying because she wanted this tricycle that was at the yard sale," Colliflower remembered.
So, they pulled over and haggled for it. But the stop made them late, and by the time they arrived at the rodeo, Karl's event was already underway.
"They were calling his name as we were pulling in," Colliflower remembered. "And he was just barely buttoning his shirt up and he got on a horse and he won the steer wrestling."
They were too late for Colliflower's event, something he never let Kassidy live down.
"I'd see her and I'd tease her about crying for that tricycle. I'd say 'You owe me some entry fees,'" he laughed.
Kassidy followed in her father's footsteps on the rodeo circuit. In 2014, he coached her all the way to the National Finals Rodeo, where she was the first Navajo person to qualify in the barrel racing category.
"Karl was so proud of his daughter," Debbie said. "He did tell me that [coaching Kassidy] was the time of his life. He had a great time."
Karl is deeply missed by all three of his children, Kyle, Devyn and Kassidy Dennison, and his nine-year-old granddaughter Kennedy. He was a mentor and father-figure to many other young people he encountered throughout his life.
"When someone needed prayer, he would pray. When someone needed advice, he would humbly give it," Devyn said. "A lot of people don't have a great relationship with their parents, and he was kind hearted enough to be that for somebody even if it was for 30 minutes, an hour, a week. I was very lucky to have him for 32 years."
Devyn had plans to connect with her father in a new way when the pandemic subsided - through his first language.
"This past year I bought a Navajo language book, and I showed it to him and said, 'I want to do this because I want to have a conversation with you at some point in Navajo,' and he was so excited," she said.
When Karl and Debbie were sick, Debbie asked to be allowed into his hospital room so she could translate his providers' words into Navajo, the language Karl was most comfortable communicating in. But it was against policy.
"I really think that's what went wrong, the language barrier that's there. Because although he understood English, it's not his first language," Debbie said. "That's all I wanted to do, was to be able to help him through the process so he wasn't scared and all alone."
Debbie also wonders if Karl received substandard care in the overwhelmed tribal hospital where he was first admitted, and whether he faced medical racism after being transferred to another hospital.
"That's what's been holding me back as far as trying to heal myself from it all," she said.
As she adjusts to life without her husband of nearly 40 years, Debbie says we can honor Karl by wearing masks, staying home, and getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
"People politicize it too much," she said. "And had they, from the highest office, stressed wearing a mask, taking these precautions, and not calling it a hoax, I think Karl would still be here today."
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.