Walama Notes: Nespelem Rodeo recalls Jackson Sundown’s legacy.
In Wallowa County, we have Chief Joseph Days, the best rodeo in the West, the last full weekend in July. The descendants of Chief Joseph put on their rodeo two weeks earlier. The Wallowa Band Nez Perce, or walama, was exiled to Nespelem Washington after the conflict of 1877. Now they hold their annual rodeo, the Nespelem Celebration Rodeo, on the second weekend of July, with time to travel to their homeland in time for the Tamkaliks celebration and Chief Joseph Days.
Some events at the Nespelem Celebration on July 13 and 14 are traditional rodeo action: saddle bronc, bareback, calf roping, bull riding, and barrel racing. Others, including the wild colt race, mane hold race, and horse race, are more traditionally Indian rodeo events.
Some of rodeo’s greatest names belong to the Wallowa Band Nez Perce. The legendary Jackson Sundown was the first Native American to win the World Saddle Bronc Championship at the 1916 Pendleton Roundup. What is less known about Sundown is that he was a member of Chief Joseph’s band, named Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn (Blanket of the Sun), and is thought to have been Chief Joseph’s nephew. He was 14 years old when the conflict of 1877 broke out. During the long trek from Wallowa County to capture at Bear Paw Meadow, Sundown attended to and herded the band’s horses. He was badly burned at the Battle of Big Hole when the U.S. Army set his family’s teepee afire. At Bear Paw Meadow, where Joseph and the walama were captured, Sundown sustained rifle wounds, but fled to Sitting Bull’s camp in Canada where he recovered. He eventually returned to Nespelem, and ultimately moved to Montana where he raised and trained horses. To make extra income, Sundown turned to riding broncs at rodeos. He wore woolen chaps and brightly colored shirts, and when riding, tied his braids under his chin. It’s said that some rodeo contestants, concerned that they would not win the ride, would withdraw their entry if Jackson Sundown was riding.
So the Nespelem Celebration in part honors a rodeo great whose heritage belongs to the walama, Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce.