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Stories from the Indigenous Internship Program: Rodeos in the Archive

The Indigenous Internship Program at MOA was developed by six Indigenous partners: the Musqueam Indian Band, the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, the Haida Gwaii Museum, the U’mista Cultural Society, the Nlaka’pamux Nation, the Coqualeetza Cultural Society, and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. The program provides training opportunities for Indigenous people working in museums or Indigenous people who would like to do this kind of work. Funding for the Indigenous Internship Program is provided by Heritage Canada Museums Assistance Program and Mellon Foundation.

Our latest series of MOA Stories feature the fascinating research conducted by members of the Fall 2021 cohort during their internship.

Rodeos in the Archive

By Elsie Joe (Nłeʔkepmx)

Several First Nations cowboys stand in front of judges’ tower at Penticton rodeo, c.1919. Photo by Lumb Stocks; Courtesy of Okanagan Archive Trust Society, file no. PEN 029.

I grew up in a small town in the Interior of British Columbia known for being the “Country Music Capital of Canada.” Country music, horses and rodeos were a constant hum in the background of my life. Coming just recently to live in Vancouver, a coastal city where people talk about fishing and driving boats instead of horse riding and driving cattle, gave me a mild case of culture shock. During my two-month internship at MOA, as part of the Indigenous Internship Program, Curator Karen Duffek introduced me to an exhibition that she and guest curator Dr. Marcia Crosby (Tsimshian/Haida) are planning (tentatively titled Mobilized: New Cultural Practices, scheduled to open Winter 2023) which focuses on First Nations Peoples and the ways we represented ourselves in public spaces between 1900 and the 1960s.

She showed us amazing archival images of Indigenous Peoples in parades, brass bands, official delegations and during royal visits. I noticed that these photographs primarily showed Coastal First Nations Peoples. When I asked if she had found any photos showing people from the BC Interior, she recommended that this could be an area of focus for my internship research.

I started this research with a question in mind: What would have inspired gatherings of large groups during those years within my region? The population density of the Interior is not what it is along the coast—there would not have been the same number or type of grand events as those that occurred in urban centres like Vancouver or Victoria. But the Interior had, and still has, rodeos!

The first rodeo in Canada occurred in 1912 in Alberta, while the Falklands Stampede, which started in 1919, is one of the oldest in BC. Before that, cattle had come to North America through Spain and its colonies. As ranching grew and spread to what is now the southern United States, Black workers started working on ranches as both paid and slave labour. As ranching continued to spread northward, First Nations Peoples joined the ranch workforce. Rodeos evolved from the friendly competitions that occurred during seasonal round-ups, growing into the official events that they are today, which still reflect the diverse history they emerged from. Today’s rodeo competitions hold events such as calf roping, barrel racing and bull riding, and draw in tourists as well as competitors from around North America and the world. The announcement of a rodeo always causes a small buzz of excitement among the people of my community.

First Nations horse race at old Penticton rodeo grounds, c.1919. Photo by Lumb Stocks; Courtesy of Okanagan Archive Trust Society, file no. PEN 021.

While delving into some online archives—including the Okanagan Trust Society, the Canadian Museum of History and even the British Library—I found numerous historical images ranging from rodeo pageants and parades to competition photographs. I’m intrigued by these images because, although rodeos were known for being inclusive, the society outside of them was not. These photos are a glimpse into the early 1900s. First Nations Peoples at events are shown standing on seemingly equal ground among people they share commonalities with. But, during much of Canada’s history, including the time when these photos were taken, First Nations Peoples across Canada faced severe racial segregation and discrimination. Since 1876, the Indian Act enacted a system where almost every aspect of an Indigenous person’s life was overseen by Indian Agents and the federal government. This included how Indigenous Peoples could practice their cultures, how their children were educated, where they could live, their ability to travel on and off their reserves, and how they were able to sell goods or make money. At the time when these photos were taken, Indigenous cowboys had to face these hardships every day. Despite this, they are shown in these photographs enjoying themselves, laughing, competing, and showcasing their extraordinary skills and strengths. They are proud to show off their capabilities, and I, in turn, am inspired by them.

The start of a horse race in Kelowna B.C., 1909. Photo by G.H.E. Hudson; Courtesy of the British Library, HS85/10/21808.

My family loves rodeos because of their inclusivity and exciting atmosphere. Rodeos are places where everyone can be among friends and marvel at the competitors’ astounding and courageous athletic performances. During the time I spent doing this research, I felt new connections to people from the past. I have gained a greater appreciation of the history of rodeos and am excited to share these images and stories with my family and community.