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UF Study: Gays, Blacks and Other Groups Stake Out New Roles in Rodeo

By Cathy Keen
February 11, 2004

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- The American frontier experience is being replayed by nontraditional groups who are taking the bull by the horns and staging their own rugged rodeos, a new University of Florida study finds.

Women and American Indians, once relegated to being rodeo queens and decorative additions to parades, are establishing new roles in the Old West rituals, while gays and blacks are tweaking traditions to reflect their own heritage, the research found.

“Just as cowboys staked out the frontier, these minority groups are claiming their American identity by saying that they, too, played a part in carving out these remote settlements,” said Jamie Johnson, now a UF adjunct professor of African-American studies who conducted the recent study.

Rodeo is an important cultural symbol because it is called the country’s original sport, competing only with baseball, our national pastime, in marketing a U.S. identity, she said.

“The cowboy work skills on which the sport is based are reminiscent of the 19th-century frontier experience, and metaphorically speaking, the frontier experience can be considered America’s national rite of passage,” she said.

For her study, Johnson viewed or volunteered at about 25 mainstream and nontraditional rodeos in the West, Southwest and Southeast between 2001 and 2003. She talked with dozens of rodeo organizers, participants and attendees, including conducting about a dozen formal in-depth interviews.

“She treats rodeos as kind of a cultural and political drama as much as it is a sport, in which the values of rising subgroups are expressed, in contrast with the values of the dominant society,” said John Moore, a UF anthropology professor who supervised her research.

Mainstream rodeos portray the rugged cowboy hero civilizing the frontier or taming the wild in a variety of competitive events, including saddle riding and steer wrestling, Johnson said. Some of these activities, such as cattle roping and bronco riding, were used by working cowboys during the days of trail drives and round-ups, while others, such as bull riding, were added as thrill factors, she said.

Gays might seem out of place in a sport that values a stereotyped version of masculinity, Johnson said, but like other groups, they have manipulated the performing elements to spotlight their preferences. In gay or lesbian rodeos, for example, the rodeo queen may be a female impersonator or, in the vernacular, a “queen,” she said.

Gay rodeos, which are frequently fundraisers for health- and AIDS-related research, carry another theme typically not found in the mainstream variety: They open with a saddled but riderless horse, she said.

“Usually in rodeos, the riderless horse is featured only when a well-known cowboy has died, but in gay rodeos this ritual is performed during every rodeo to commemorate those who have died from AIDS,” she said.

A paint horse, with its large brown, white and black spots, is used to symbolize the diversity of gay pride, and a horse in one rodeo actually was named Pride, she said.

Horses also hold a special place in American Indian rodeos, where the traditional opening cowboy prayer is changed to include words of praise for the horse, Johnson said. Nature is revered rather than viewed as a force to be tamed, which is the case in typical rodeos, she said.

“Rodeos are considered a sport where man conquers the animal, but in Native-American rodeos that idea gets flipped - the horse is sacred,” she said.

In mainstream rodeos, American Indians were hired mainly to add color and pageantry to the Old West feel, often marching in the grand entry parade or competing in “Indian relay races” in loin cloths on painted ponies, Johnson said. The American Indian version celebrates cultural traditions, such as the powwow dance or harvest festival, and crowns a queen from the American Indian community, she said.

Blacks also were not allowed to participate in rodeos on an equal footing alongside whites for many years, even though many 19th-century cowboys were former slaves of African descent who had mastered the skills of riding and roping, Johnson said.

These rodeos represent some notable black cowboys who rode on the Pony Express or performed other roles in settling the Western frontier, including “Deadwood Dick,” an ex-slave who rode 100 miles in 12 hours on an unsaddled horse and tried to rope a U.S. Army cannon; Clara Brown, who traveled nearly into her 80s across the plains helping homeless, sick and hungry blacks; and the Black Express riders who carried mail over a 2,000-mile journey across plain, plateau and mountain to remote areas.

Black rodeos also substitute the black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson for “The Star Spangled Banner,” she said.

Women make up another group whose rodeo role has changed, she said.

“Basically, women perform pretty much the same events as men do, except the stock weighs a little less - the bulls they ride may be smaller and the cows they tow may be a little lighter,” she said.

Barbara Bugg, rodeo director for the Southeast Regional Gay Rodeo Association, said that overall the group’s events have attracted a growing audience. The association stages a gay and lesbian rodeo in Atlanta, the proceeds from which are donated to charitable groups.

Each year about 200 additional people have attended each day of the weekend event in Atlanta, Bugg said. A total of about 600 people attended the last two-day event in June 2002, she said.

“The mainstream population is starting to come” to these rodeos, she said. “It’s not just a gay event. And we offer a lot of events they don’t have at regular rodeos.”

 

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