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Do Indians Make Better Cowboys Than Cowboys?

Tristan Ahtone

The Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR) just wrapped up in Las Vegas. During the event, spectators enjoyed the usual rodeo competitions: barrel racing, steer wrestling and bull riding. But what's different about this event is it’s an Indian-only rodeo, which means in addition to the bulls, cows and Indian cowboys, the whole family is there.

“Cowboys are the coolest, Indian cowboys especially,” said Freddy Heathershaw, a former judge for INFR from South Dakota. “They are the coolest mother*ckers goin’ down the road, man.”

One other thing he wants you to know is that Indians make better cowboys than cowboys.

“’Cause Indians are cooler,” Heathershaw said. “They’re horsemen. Cowboys think pick up trucks are cool, you know? Indians think horses are cool.”

But at rodeo, there’s more to looking cool than just sitting on top of a horse or a bull during competition. That’s true whether you’re Indian or not. When it comes to riding a bucking bull, for instance, you have to have panache.

“How they use their free arm,” said INFR judge Todd Buffalo. “How they use their hips and the top of their body, how they shuffle their feet around and get a better hold.”

Like a good hold on the two-ton bull Slow Ride that Dakota Louis is about to take on.

“I’ve been on him before. Actually my first year ever making it out here I was 17,” said Louis. “I won the fourth round on him, I was 86 points, so I’m pretty excited to get back on him.”

Louis, a 21-year-old Northern Cheyenne tribal member from Montana is already a two-time world champion. If he wins again, he’ll lap his father – also a two-time world champion bull rider – and be one of two riders to ever have three wins at INFR.

Slow Ride is a top-ranked bull, and tonight is his final competition. Stakes are high for both.

“Team Phoenix Dakota Louis has only got to beat 53 points to get his third buckle,” bellows an announcer over the arenas loud speaker system.

“He’s had this bull before,” adds a second voice.

Dressed in all black — black boots, black chaps, black hat and black helmet — Louis climbs atop Slow Ride. He gets a good hold on the animal, and with a clang, the pen opens, bull kicking wildly, Louis hanging on with one hand, his free hand up in the air, as the crowd screams.

When the bell goes off eight seconds later, Louis jumps off, and the scores are quickly tallied. This is the moment Louis, his competitors and the crowd have been waiting for.

“He only needed 53,” yells the announcer. “How about 63! He's the world champion three times!”

The bull exits the arena for the last time, and Louis exits the arena to his beaming fiancé.

From the sidelines, former bull-riding world champion and INFR judge Freddy Heathershaw watches. What makes Indian Rodeo different, he says, is the sense of family.

“It’s just a cooler type of people,” said Heathershaw. “Our camaraderie is better. We’re all brothers. People help each other.”

And the contestants seem to feel the same way.

“My dad, he qualified in the steer wrestling,” Louis said. “My little brother, he’s in the bull riding as well, and my sisters in the junior barrel racing.”

“It’s a family sport,” said Justine Doka, a contestant in the Ladies Break Away category. “My dad’s here competing in the team roping, and my sister’s here competing in the junior break away. We travel together, we practice together. It’s something we all do as a family.”

“I got family that powwows and stuff too, but it’s all the same,” said Casey Cummins, a competitor in the Team Calf Roping event. “Whatever your family does, whatever you’re born into, you pretty much got no choice, that’s what you’re going to do, you know?”

For the last 38 years, Native Americans at INFR have competed for golden belt buckles by riding bulls and broncos, wrestling steers, or barrel racing. And Heathershaw says that tradition has been passed down from generation to generation without much change.

“These guys, you know, maybe they got some professional training, they have chances, but when that gate opens, they’re no different than it was 20 years ago,” Heathershaw said. “They might have better equipment and stuff like that, but you still gotta have the balls to do it.”