the riders

words: steve marsh

photography: chris douglas

Forty minutes southwest of downtown Minneapolis, you’ll find a suburb with ancient roots. The sky gets bigger out here, with trees swapped out for tall grass, the beginning of the prairie that serves as a preamble to the wide open high plains of the west. The town of Shakopee on the southern bank of the Minnesota River is named after a Dakota Indian chief from the 18th century—his nickname Shak’pi, the Dakota word for “six,” was given to him after his wife White Buffalo Woman gave birth to sextuplet boys. Each chief that followed received the same name, and Shakopee’s grandson, Chief Shakopee III, earned the additional diminutive endearment of Sakpe, or “Little Six.”

 

Little Six was a leader in the Dakota War of 1862, a conflict that took place in a far-flung American territory in the middle of the Civil War. The bloody skirmishes between Natives and settlers resulted in heavy losses on both sides, culminating in a small war decisively lost by the Dakota and a kangaroo court that ended in the largest mass execution in United States history. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the death sentences of a more than 200 souls, but he still signed off on 38 Natives to be hung the day after Christmas in 1862. Little Six slipped away to Canada as a U.S. military tribunal convicted him in absentia of killing civilians, a crime punishable by death. A couple years later, living abroad with a bounty on his head, he was finally betrayed, drugged, kidnapped, and brought back over the border to Minnesota. On November 11, 1865, as Sakpe climbed the scaffold at Fort Snelling to be hung, a steam train whistle blew in the distance, prompting his legendary quote: “As the white man comes in, the Indian goes out.”

 

Growing up in a northeastern suburb of the Twin Cities, I didn’t know any of that shit. We weren’t taught much about the Dakota War in school, and outside of school, we grew up with the same tired image of American Indians as everybody else living miles and miles from this prairie. Because of the movies and television, the Dakota are maybe the most famous Native Americans in the world, and when you thought of them, you pictured them in their Hollywood glory, thrust against the blue sky of the high plains, with eagle feathers in their hair, riding horses bareback in Dances With Wolves. But growing up in the Twin Cities, a metropolitan area with the second largest urban Native population in country, and the birthplace of the Black Panther-esque American Indian Movement— you didn’t see Natives on horses. You saw Natives on the bus, sometimes in the park, or at the bodega over by my favorite Venezuelan pancakes restaurant. As a kid, I never passed any bareback mounted Natives on the way to Shakopee’s two main attractions: Valleyfair, the amusement park with all the important rollercoasters, and less exciting for a young boy who wasn’t allowed to make a wager, Canterbury Downs, the gleaming horse track that opened in ‘85. At 18, finally old enough to gamble myself, I discovered a third Shakopee attraction: Mystic Lake Casino, the 24/7 Indian casino that opened in 1992, where you could play blackjack and smoke cigarettes all night long. On the drive out there, you would pass Mystic’s smaller, slightly shabbier companion casino, originally opened as a bingo hall in 1982 and named after Little Six.

 

Eventually, I became aware that the tribe that ran Mystic Lake and Little Six, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community or the SMSC, was one of the richest, most politically powerful tribes in the entire United States. There are fewer than 1000 members in the SMSC, with each person who can claim to be a descendant of the original Chief Shakopee receiving more than $85,000 a month—their share of the massive casino and resort revenue. Part of the casino’s largesse is earmarked for lobbying at the state capitol, with the overriding goal of keeping their gaming monopoly intact by preventing the state from opening a casino of its own within the metropolitan area. The closest the state ever came was in 2012: Canterbury Park was struggling financially, looking jealously across the prairie at their Indian neighbors, and the NFL’s Vikings were threatening to move to Los Angeles. A so-called “racino” at Canterbury would’ve killed two birds—bailed out Canterbury and kept the NFL in Minnesota—with one piece of legislation. Lobbyists on tribal payroll worked furiously to prevent this from happening, and in the end, they won: the Vikings financed their stadium through a provisional electronic gaming provision and a revised tax deal, and Mystic Lake paid off Canterbury Park, with a $75 million marketing agreement to be doled out in phases over the next decade. 

 

SMSC’s marketing deal was intended to save both their monopoly and horse racing in the state of Minnesota, by increasing purses, and increasing the quality of racehorses. As a tacked-on addition to the marketing deal, the SMSC brought Indian Horse Relay racing—the “First Extreme Sport,” as their marketing team is referring to it—to Canterbury. The first Mystic Lake Derby was held in 2013. Andy Vig, the son of powerful tribal chairman Charlie Vig, was put in charge of coordinating the race, and although the racing results weren’t that exciting by themselves—most of the participants were used to shorter tracks, so Canterbury’s mile long oval produced blowouts—the action and pageantry have become a big draw. Ever since, the Indian Relay heats have taken place between races during the Canterbury’s biggest weekend of the year: the Mystic Lake Derby, a raceday with $200,000 in cumulative purses, that serves, according to Canterbury CEO Randy Sampson, as the track’s crown jewel of the racing season.  The Derby brings in the best horses in the region, and that kind of quality brings out the eccentric rich people with the funny hats. But it’s the Indian Relay racing that brings out casual racing fans and suburban families.

 

The stands are packed with people who have come to see riders wearing full feather headdresses and fringed chaps, riding horses with rumps that have been painted with pink and yellow handprints and various other esoteric or sacred insignia. The Native athletes ride bareback for one lap around before jumping off one horse and onto the next to ride another lap. They do this three times in succession before the winner crosses the finish line. It’s an insane spectator sport; riders and handlers nearly get trampled in the chaos, horses have gone down and have had to be euthanized right there on the track, and beneath it all is perhaps the primal draw of American history: the Native as Other. Thousands of residents of Shakopee and the surrounding suburbs come out to see real Indians with feathers in their hair, skillfully riding bareback, out here on the plains, for the first time in almost 100 years.

ii

 

It’s Thursday, eight hours before the first heat, and Richard Longfeather, a Dakota Indian and relay team owner hailing from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, has just been disqualified. He pulled into Shakopee this morning after making the eight-hour drive with his wife, their son, his son’s best friend, and their nephew, and a trailer full of five thoroughbred horses. Longfeather is wearing tight blue jeans and a big belt buckle, with an Under Armour baseball cap pulled down over his closely cropped salt and pepper hair. According to SMSC’s Andy Vig, one of Longfeather’s horses didn’t have the correct vaccination paperwork. He’s near tears as Vig explains that he shares his disappointment, especially since Longfeather’s team was the only Dakota Sioux relay team at the event—meaning that in some ways his team would have been the de facto local favorites.

 

“But at this point,” Vig sighs, rubbing the red hair cropped underneath his Stetson, “there’s not much that can be done.”

 

It’s disappointing for me as well. I had Longfeather marked down as a possible central character for my story. His home reservation in South Dakota, Standing Rock, had been in the news perpetually for months. And Longfeather is a native Dakota speaker, steeped in the culture of the horse. Raised by his grandparents on a ranch without electricity, he’s been around these animals his entire life for both work and play, whether in the form of relay or rodeo (Richard’s half-brother is a professional bull rider to boot). He explains that the Dakota received the horse centuries ago, but he doesn’t credit the Spanish, which is how most historians believe the horse made its way to the indigenous people of the North American plains.

 

“In Dakota,” he says, “the horse is called ‘sunka wa ka’ which combines ‘sunka,’ basically dog, and ‘wa ka,’ the powers of God.”

 

To Longfeather, the horse is kind of a dog—man’s best friend—with divine superpowers.

 

We walk away from the officials and he takes me to his camper trailer to introduce me to his horses and his family. He shows me his team’s homemade fluorescent green pullovers, decorated with an eagle feather in the front and a wolf on the back.

 

“Earlier this summer, we drew the #NODAPL hashtag on the backs of these,” he says. “And we got big cheers from the grandstands.”

 

But they sewed together brand new uniforms for this meet.

 

“We wanted to avoid politics this time around,” he says.

 

As Longfeather huddles with his family to worry about having to make the long drive back to Little Eagle, South Dakota, the other 13 relay teams are getting their horses situated in the receiving barn. This year, most of the teams have brought four or five horses, which is a big change from previous relays at Canterbury, when many teams would show up with three horses and purchase one or two extras from local owners. Many of the teams were grumbling about the new policy. The mile long Canterbury track was intimidating. Nearly all of the Indian relay races take place on dusty rodeo short tracks, where most teams use quarterhorses, a sprinting breed that’s much less temperamental than the high strung thoroughbreds who race on mile long tracks. Up until this year, the relay teams were allowed to buy thoroughbreds here—the back barns at Canterbury is an active horse market, accommodating up to 1600 horses during the high point of the season. But during one of the races last year, a horse that was bought here was entered into a race the next day, and it injured its leg and had to be euthanized, right on the track. Because the horses that race in the Indian relays aren’t under the jurisdiction of the State of Minnesota racing commission, rumors circulated about that horse’s health and why it was cleared to race in the first place. It wasn’t a good look for the Indian Relays, so this year, the policy was changed.

 

While most of the teams stay ten minutes away in rooms at the Mystic Lake Casino hotel, the Mountain River team from the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana has pitched tents across the parking lot from the receiving barn. You can see their nation’s flag flying as soon as you drive past the McDonald’s on the backside of the track. Two separate tribes live on the Fort Belknap rez—the Gros Ventre Indians and the Nakoda—a mountain tribe and a plains tribe, and they don’t interact that much. This kind of enforced awkwardness was mandated by the federal government when the reservation was established in the 19th century. Near the barn, one of Mountain River’s muggers, Al Kulbeck, says that even though Canterbury has an $82,000 purse—the most of any race—most of these teams are in it for the love of the culture.

 

“Fort Belknap is a basketball reservation for most of the year,” he says, “but in the summertime, everybody follows relay.” But Kulbeck says taking care of thoroughbreds isn’t just a seasonal situation—you’re responsible for them year round, and taking care of racehorses out on the reservation can be stressful.

 

“Quarterhorses will dig around in the snow but thoroughbreds won’t,” he says. “You can’t even water ‘em out in our pasture, really—you bring ‘em to a crick and they won’t know what the fuck that is.”

 

And while some teams come from reservations with more money, or can find sponsors to offset costs—a bar near the reservation sponsors Mountain View’s horsefeed, for example—the humans on the team are oftentimes left to their own devices. “We left the race before this one with $2,” he says.

 

iii

 

One of the favorites to win the relay is Starr School, a Blackfeet team from Browning, Montana. Last June they won the Muckleshoot Gold Cup, a big $50,000 purse Indian relay held at Emerald Downs, a track owned by the Muckleshoot tribe out in Seattle, Washington. There’s a concerted effort to establish Mystic and Muckleshoot as two thirds of a triple crown of Indian Relay (the third leg has yet to be determined), so the Starr School team is eligible for a $10,000 bonus if they win Mystic Lake.

 

Because of the Muckleshoot win, Starr School’s 21-year-old Isiah Crossguns is quickly becoming a star in the relay world. Like most relay riders, Crossguns is tall, much taller than the horseworld’s typical jockey. But he’s thin, with a build as willowy as the mustache that darkens his upper lip. He says he weighs around 125 pounds. His team’s captain is burning sweetgrass, an herb sacred to most tribes of the Great Plains, in order to remove bad vibes and calm the animals down before their race. The horse standing behind Crossguns bends down to nuzzle his ear. Both of them exude the eerie calm of professional athletes before a big game.

 

It’s just after before twilight, and time for the first heat of the evening. In an unexpected development, somehow the veterinarian back in Standing Rock has unearthed the correct herpes papers and Richard Longfeather’s team has been cleared to race. This would be fishy if this had happened in any other sport, and it is in this one as well, I guess, but when I find Richard by the barn with his horses, he’s ready to race, wearing his homemade lime green team Longfeather jersey.  He breaks down in tears and tells me how much this means to him, how much this means to his family. Earlier, Longfeather told me a story about his son, Jace, who will be riding for his team in front of thousands of fans tonight. When Jace was a ten-year-old, he enrolled him in a bull riding training class. Somehow, during one of the early training sessions, his boy was allowed to ride an actual 5000 pound bull, and although Longfeather offered him sage advice on how to dismount safely, the boy was thrown, and one of the bucking bull’s hooves came down on the boy’s forearm, “squishing it like a ripe tomato,” as Longfeather describes it. He vividly remembers holding his son’s arm together in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The boy was banned from riding bulls again by his mother (temporarily, as it turned out—he started again this past summer.) But now, Jace is focused on Indian Relay, and while this sport may be slightly safer than riding a bull, it’s not without serious risk.

 

A quick note on how a relay race actually works: Right in front of the winners circle area on the grandstand side of the track, there are seven boxes painted in the dirt with white chalk. While the seven riders get off to a running start, in the boxes the captain, one “set-up man,” and one “mugger” hold the two extra horses who will run the second and the third legs, respectively. The mugger gets his name from his job: when their rider comes around the track with the first horse, and then again with the second, he has to throw himself in front of a racehorse and accost it, like a mugger, in order to slow and ultimately stop it. The rider, who is riding bareback, attempts to leap down from one horse as cleanly as possible; if the set-up man has the next horse positioned perfectly, the rider will be able to execute his footwork in textbook fashion, taking the minimal amount of steps necessary to jump off one horse and spring up onto the back of the new one. Remounted, the rider then slaps the horse on the ass and goes flying down the track. In the chaos of a relay, the exchanges, of course, aren’t always clean, and sometimes a mugger finds himself in the mud under the hooves of a 1200-pound racehorse. As Mountain River captain Byard Kirkaldie says, “it’s modern day warfare—some people just come out to see us wreck.”

 

Before the first race starts, the Eagle Whistles, a legendary pow wow “drum” (the term Natives use for a pow wow singing group) with roots in the tribal lands of Mandaree, North Dakota, ratchets up the intensity by throttling a deer skin drum and intoning songs in an ancient style. Even surrounded by a grandstand filled with suburban horseracing aficionados drinking big plastic cups full of Budweiser, you’re transplanted to the pre-colonial age. The eerie sound lends an immediate martial seriousness to the proceedings. After the intros of each team over the P.A. system by “the Voice of Canterbury” (and Minnesota Vikings super bro play-by-play man) Paul Allen, the entire field gets off to a galloping start. This is different than the gated start used for all the other races held at Canterbury, where the horses are lined up and released from a mechanical chute that ensures a fair start—and this is the main reason why the Minnesota racing commission doesn’t allow Canterbury patrons to actually bet on the Indian relay races.

 

To no one’s surprise, Isiah Crossguns takes the lead over the first lap. He’s ahead by more than five lengths on the backside before being slowly reeled in by a horse and rider from the Tissidimit team, from on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho. The first exchange is frantic, with Crossguns, who holds his whip between his teeth and the Tissidimit rider, Jered Cerino, bounding off their charges onto two fresh horses. Coming in immediately behind them, the Mountain Crow team from Southern Montana wrecks. The rider hops off right before the mugger attempts to catch the horse. While the rider mounts the next horse cleanly, the mugger doesn’t fare as well, getting knocked into the mud as he grabs the reins and holds on for dear life. The set up man tries to snatch the dangling reins himself and also gets dragged down. It all happens fast and looks like it could’ve been much, much worse. The crowd loves it.

 

On the second lap Tissidimit takes the lead. Their rider maintains his lead coming out of the second exchange. Crossguns gives one more valiant charge on the back stretch, but Tissidimit’s rider has obviously left something in reserve for the home stretch, and wins by two lengths at the stripe.

 

During the break between heats, I run into a member of Canterbury’s Racing Commission who I’ve known for years.

 

“Steve!” she said, “What are you doing here?”

 

When I explained that I was here to cover the relay races she looks stunned. “Why?” she asked. I told her I thought it was a good story.

 

“I think it’s disgusting,” she said. I tell her I understand Indian Relay is less regulated by the state than thoroughbred racing, but is it really that much more dangerous to the horses?

 

She doesn’t want me to use her name on the record. Instead, she introduces me to the woman standing next to her—the track’s head vet, Dr. Lynn Hovda, a woman with long grey hair and an arresting set of eyes, one green, one blue.

 

“Go ahead,” she says. “Ask her.”

 

I ask Dr. Hovda if she thinks there might be something amiss with the veterinary paperwork for Richard Longfeather’s team. She rolls her heterochromatic eyes almost to the back of her head and says she will schedule an interview with me in the morning. (When I meet her the next morning in her office on Canterbury’s backside, she walks back the eyerolling, but expresses concern that Indian Relay is regulated by Canterbury Park, not the State of Minnesota. She explains the epidemic potential of Equine Herpes, and says the track did the right thing by disallowing horses to be raced on the same weekend they’re bought.)

 

Longfeather’s team is set to race in the second heat. He has exchanged the Under Armour ballcap for a white Stetson and he’s wearing his team’s lime green shirt., He’ll be working as his team’s mugger, tonight, and there has been one more dramatic last minute change regarding personnel. His son Jace feels like he’s carrying too much weight for the the mile long track at Canterbury, so his friend Justin Fox is atop the horse. When the gun goes off, Longfeather’s thoroughbred doesn’t react, perhaps due to the last minute rider switch. The previous year’s champion relay team, DD Express—Sioux Indians from the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, the same Reservation the famous chief Sitting Bull lived on in the late 19th century— shoot ahead by 20 lengths. Longfeather’s team finishes dead last.

iv

 

The following afternoon, outside the Indian Relay receiving barn, Tissidimit’s rider Jared Cerino is finishing up an appearance for some students who have been bused in from the Lower Sioux Community, just down the Minnesota River Valley from Shakopee. He sits on a picnic table and watches his captain, Lance Tissidimit, only a couple years removed from being a top rider himself, answer questions about Indian Relay. Lance is in his early forties now, but he’s retained his athletic build, and a curly black mullet that flows out the back of his baseball cap.

 

“Ask me anything you want,” Tissidimit encourages the kids. “I can’t stop talking about relay.”

 

He points out that muggers have to “always be on their toes,” and then he mimics the classic athletic stance of a baseball player or a basketball player, feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent in position to anticipate a decelerating racehorse coming directly at him. He explains that the pilot needs to be constantly communicating with his horse— especially on the mile long track, where they need to conserve the horse’s energy for the home stretch. And he talks about what he looks for when he picks a horse for his team.

 

“Does he kick?” he asks. “Does he bite?” He shrugs. “And for some reason, I think grey horses are always faster.”

 

Like some of the other western teams hailing from dual tribe reservations, the Shoban team is a mix: Lance Tissidimit is a Bannock Indian while Cerino is Shoshone. The tribes were rivals on the Great Plains for hundreds of years, before the U.S. government forced them to live on the same reservation.

 

“I rode for the Coby team [a Shoshone team from Fort Hall] that won here at Canterbury a couple years ago,” he says. “And Lance helped us out with horses, so I’m returning the favor by riding with his team this year.”

 

Cerino is short, closer to the size of a traditional jockey than most of the other Indian riders. At twenty-seven, he’s more experienced as well. And as a former boxer and basketball player,  more powerfully built.

 

“I fought at featherweight,” he says. “But now I’m closer to 130. Boxing, horses, and basketball is my life.”

 

He splits time between the Shoshone-Bannock rez at Fort Hall, Idaho, and the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. “I prefer Idaho because it keeps me busy,” he says. “I have ADHD and the rez can be so boring.”

 

So boring, in fact, that he’s gotten into trouble.

 

“Gangs, yeah,” he says.  “Just fighting. I come from a known boxing family and we were always fighting and in jail and stuff.”

 

The last time he got in trouble he was on work release—300 days with only 20 to go—and he still ran.

 

“Just ran because that’s what I always do,” he says. “Ran a whole year. Turned myself in and got out in time to win the Blackfoot National Indian Relay.”

 

When we talk about winning the heat last night, he chuckles at his captain’s reaction.

 

“I held back the whole time,” he says. “Caught Starr School on the second lap, and finished him with the third—I came out the final turn and I slapped him.”

 

Lance was not happy.

 

“Lance’s philosophy is never to whip the horse,” he says.

 

v

 

 

After the final prelim heats on Friday night, Cerino will presumably have more explaining to do: He rode Tissidimit’s horses to their second first place finish in as many races. In the latter Friday night heat, Abrahamson narrowly beat out Starr School down the stretch, with last year’s champions DD Express qualifying for the finals with another third place finish. Saturday night’s field was set, and Starr School’s $10,000 bonus would be in play.

 

In the early evening before Saturday’s final heat, there was a different intensity in the receiving barn. Drake was thumping from a Beats pill even as the scent of smudged sweetgrass wafted through the stalls. Some of the handlers were finishing up painting the sacred tribal symbols on their horses. A small cluster of dedicated horsemen huddled around a monitor showing a closed circuit feed of the other horseraces. One of them was DD Express’ trainer and set up man, Gilbert W. Ecoffey, an Oglala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. 

 

Ecoffey was already wearing DD’s team uniform, a garish pink and green striped hand sewn jersey, with his jeans. GW is a big man, way over 6 feet tall with a baby face and a huge belly. He has the aristocratic bearing, and faintest horse country accent, of a man who’s been around the sport of kings since he was a child.

 

“I’m three generations into the thoroughbred industry.” He tells me to look up his uncle, Fred Ecoffey. “Hall of Fame jockey,” he says. “Won 2,800 races. Leading rider in Louisiana, Chicago, Nebraska—most famous for Nebraska.”

 

Ecoffey says Indian Relay has been tied to rodeo culture for more than 100 years, but rodeo’s little brother may be finally catching up.

 

“It’s going to be America’s next extreme sport,” he predicts. “Compare it to Professional Bull Riders, PBR. Look how big that got—a million in prize money in every city they go to. That’s how Indian Relay is going to be in 10 years. I look for it to be at every track in the country by 2025.

 

But Ecoffey warns me that the chances for this explosive growth are mitigated by the conditions on the reservations.

 

“The horse is still necessary in our culture,” he says. “Right now Pine Ridge is poverty stricken, a really sad place with suicide and alcoholism, but I think the horse can save young people’s lives. What I tell people is what you put into a horse, you’re going to get out of it. You gotta wake up in the morning and make sure he is fed, make sure he is taken care of. You got a purpose in life—a racehorse.”

 

I bring up the racing commissioner as delicately as I can, relaying her concerns about the treatment of the relay horses.

 

“Well you know, a lot of people like to assume,” he says. “They assume that because we’re Indians and these horses aren’t coming right from Canterbury Park that we don’t take care of our horses. But our horses have good homes. I have a 12 stall barn at my home and my horses are took care of as good as the horses here at Canterbury Park.”

 

On the way out of the barn, I run into Mountain River’s captain, Byard Kirkaldie, one more time. He points out the 19-year-old rider for Abrahamson’s team, Scott Abrahamson, who is getting help from a couple young women with his feather headdress. Byard has overheard a little of my “extreme sport” discussion with GW.

 

“You ever see the Omak suicide race?” Byard asks. When I shake my head he tells me to look it up on YouTube and then motions towards Abrahamson again. “That kid just won it.”

 

I punch in the keywords and it pops right up—a minute long video that was recorded a couple weeks ago. The camerawork is zoomy and shaky, like it’s aping cinema verite a little too hard, like a Hollywood found footage horror movie. After a few seconds of the cameraperson getting oriented,, a dozen horses divebomb at a full gallop down a bare, 65-degree hill, with a couple of the horses wiping out immediately before the majority of the group plunges into the Okanogan River. The entire group seems to be frantically swinging their whips almost indiscriminately. The camera zooms in on the two leaders, now maniacally riding through the Okanogan, with water up to their horses chests, and they have begun to turn their whips on each other. One of them, wearing a purple helmet, is Abrahamson, who goes on to win the race out of camera view.

 

I don’t know what I just watched. It’s disorienting. And I feel guilty and thrilled simultaneously for having watched it.

 

I wiki the race, and it turns out although it’s loosely based on 19th century horse warrior practices, the race itself was founded in 1935 by a Washington State businessman who was promoting the Omak rodeo. The relationship between rodeo and relay seems to be nearly as old and as symbiotic as the one between Cowboy and Native: a sequence of violent domination to appropriation as entertainment to large scale economic exploitation. A similar dynamic exists between the 19th century “Wild West shows” and the pow wow. Some kind of pow wow ceremony—basically a meeting of tribes—existed long before Indians were put on reservations, but what we—meaning both whites and Natives—understand as the modern pow wow originated from Buffalo Bill Cody—a white dude—and his marketing scheme. Before Buffalo Bill came along, it was illegal for separate tribes to congregate on reservations. But when it was determined tribal color could be exploited for entertainment, sometime in the 1870s, pow wows became popular all over the west. Eventually Natives re-appropriated the ceremony for themselves. Indian relay follows the same arc. What began a long time ago as competition—basically a simulation of martial horse skills as practice—was first banned by the federal government, then appropriated by white rodeos, then re-appropriated by natives—wiki “wild westing”—and now has real marketing money behind it. America, fuck yeah.

vi

 

Walking from the barn to the winner’s circle to see the final race, you can start hearing Eagle Whistle’s drum a couple football field lengths away. I walk alongside the riders and the horses right up to the exchange boxes. As with every other heat, the exchange box positions are determined by a random drawing before the race. The best hope for a team is to draw a spot on the near end, to avoid as much of the chaos in the middle as possible. Starr School and Tissidimit are the lucky ones tonight, drawing the first and second boxes, respectively, while DD Express is the least, drawing the seventh spot on the far end of the boxes.

 

DD Express comes out hot, with Starr School second and Tissidimit in third. But on the back stretch of the first lap, the other Oglala Sioux team, Brew Crew, vigorously “goes to the stick,” as they say, and takes the lead into the first exchange.

 

The first exchange is clean for Brew Crew, Tissidimit, and Starr School, but there is a nasty collision between Mountain River’s horse and rider and DD Express’ mugger/captain Soup Ducheneaux, and set-up man/trainer, GW Ecoffey. Ducheneaux is bowled over first, and  Ecoffey is dragged through the mud, on top of Ducheneaux. In the chaos, one of their horses gallops down the track without a rider.

 

Brew Crew’s Sylvan Brown seems to be pulling away on the backstretch when young Scott Abrahamson catches him halfway around. They jockey for position along the railing. When Brown pulls back into the exchange box, he leaps from his horse and makes two long strides before hauling himself up onto his final ride.

 

Abrahamson, now mounted on a huge grey thoroughbred for the last lap, emerges from the scrum to retake the lead—he turns back to look at the rest of the field behind him.

 

Paul Allen interrupts the middle of his call to shriek, “DD EXPRESS HAS BEEN ELIMINATED! DD EXPRESS HAS BEEN ELMINATED!”

 

Allen explains it has to do with the crash on the first exchange.

 

“THE DEFENDING CHAMPION WILL NOT REPEAT AS CHAMPIONS!”

 

Brew Crew’s rider, Brown, attempts an aggressive move to the rail but Abrahamson squeezes his route off. Brew Crew starts to come up on the outside. Then out of nowhere, Tissidimit charges on the far outside.

 

“HERE COMES TISSIDIMIT MAKING A BIG MOVE!” Allen bellows.

 

When Tissidimit starts to slide back around the final turn, Allen accuses the slowing horse of “doing the moonwalk,” but they quickly reengage.

 

Abrahamson fades just at the wire and…

 

“OH THAT’S TIGHT!” Allen screams. “THAT’S VERY TIGHT!”

 

It was going to be a photo finish. 

 

At this point, Allen puts his big white foot in his mouth, as he exclaims to the crowd, “Tissidimit attempted to savage Brew Crew right in front of the wire.” It’s a word Paul Allen uses all the time on his morning radio show on KFAN, but in the context of an Indian Relay, the meaning is different. It’s jarring to me, and I jot it down in my notebook, but the crowd is amped—it doesn’t appear that anybody else here cares.

 

The slow motion replay on the jumbotron makes it look like Brew Crew had won by a nose. The Oglala Sioux are now out on the track and they are yelling, “WE ARE THE HORSE NATION! WE ARE THE HORSE NATION!” Native women in the winner’s circle erupt in the feminine celebratory cry of “lelelelelelele!”

 

“We await the official results,” Allen cautions.

 

After another few interminable minutes of silence, we all realize something is wrong. Paul Allen comes back and again directs our attention to the large infield monitor. He explains that right before the wire, Sylvan Brown reached across and grabbed the reins of Tissidimit’s horse. The Zapruder-like evidence is blatant.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Paul Allen comes in over the loudspeaker again, this time sounding like a disappointed school principal, “the original winner, Brew Crew, has been disqualified.”

 

The crowd gasps.

 

“And the new Indian Relay Horse Racing Champion is Tissidimit.”

 

Jered Cerino claps his hands and raises his fist. Tissidimit had won, in the most dramatic finish in the brief history of Indian Relay at Canterbury Park.

 

vii

 

After Tissidimit is awarded gaudy golden belt buckles and an oversized check for $7200—their portion of the purse—I walk next to Cerino on the way back to the barn. He is amped from the race, of course, and reveals that Sylvan Brown, the rider of Brew Crew, had called him a “motherfucker” as he grabbed his inside reigns.

 

“We had words after the race,” he explained. “But instead of those words going to fighting, I told him just to don’t let it happen next time.” He took a breath. “I got to chill so I can come back next year.”

 

I slowed down to walk next to Lance Tissidimit. I wanted to ask this horse Yoda about his no whip policy. Is this some kind of tribal Bannock tradition, or is it a way that he gets results from his horses personally? In my week at Canterbury, I think I’ve seen every other jockey, native or not, go to the whip. Repeatedly

 

“It came from myself,” he said. “You don’t need to whip them excessively—just a couple taps is all they need. They ain’t going to go any faster than they’re already going.”

 

Tissidimit says that like most team sports, it’s a communication thing, except this sport your teammate is a horse.

 

“You treat them well,” he says. “And they will give you what you want.”

 

And with that, he heads into the barn to celebrate with his teammates.

 

 

Two in text images by Canterbury track photographer Shawn Coady.

Images are from the September 2015 All Nations Indian Horse Relay Championships in Billings, MT and the August 2017 Canterbury Championship in Minneapolis, MN.