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Native Sun News: Horse race a long tradition for Colville Tribes

The following story was written and reported by Redwing Cloud. All content © Native Sun News.

OMAK, WASHINGTON –– Native American Indians must continually reach back into the lives of their ancestors to create an identity, a health and well-being for who they are today. To consider yesteryears as by-gone days is to say life is not a circle but a line that ends when death begins.

A tiny nation on the backburner of humanity has managed to garner the attention of the whole world by memorializing a tradition of manhood known as the Suicide Race..

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have continued an age old tradition of testing the limits of their men’s abilities to ride their horses in the most strenuous of circumstances to determine the best athlete to claim "King of the Hill."

In the sweltering summer sun, generational expert riders begin the race the second week of August on horses previously qualified in a pre-heat competition.

The rigorous nature of the path demands the horses be thoroughly checked before each race. Colville Business Councilwoman, Silvia Peasley said, “We don’t send out just any horse. It takes a certain caliber. They have to pass a vet check, a swim, and ‘hill’ test.”

Preston Boyd, trainer of Patch and winner of this year’s race, said, “They don’t pass the test, they don’t race. We have a lot of safety measures in place.”

Each night the four day race begins with an honor song by a Native drum group. Northern Nation head drummer, JR Gun Shows said, “We sing to bless and protect the riders and their horses. There’s a time in a man’s life when he goes from boyhood to manhood. Going down that hill and finding out who he is with a chance of injury is what life is about."

"We sacrifice so that our families can have a better place to be," Gun Shows said. "Competition for the best place is always in our minds. This race is representative of that struggle and we honor those men that do that for the rest of us.”

The rugged course starts on a plateau 260 feet above the river bank. The horses are walked first for a couple of miles from their holding pens, through the encampment to be hailed by the dancers and people, across the Okanagan River Bridge and up the trail to the starting line.

Bright lights illuminate the night sky as a five man committee stands watch to decide any race discrepancies or foul starts. Upon hearing the blast of the gun from the Official Race Starter, the jockeys dash their 20 well-cared for, trained horses the 120 feet to the edge of the steep, sandy hill. Over they go, without a moment’s hesitation to descend in a cascade of thundering hoofs to the river below.

“It’s not fearful to me,” said winner of this year’s Overall, Tyler Peasley. “I was looking forward all my life to coming off the hill with my horse. I live for this race. It’s in my blood. This is a big deal for our Tribe. I feel honored to be racing with these guys. Taking pride in being a horseman, Native American and showing our bravery is important.”

Lakota observer, Shakohwin Black Cloud said, “When a horse takes a tumble, it brings home the fact this is not a cake walk. It takes courage and bravery for the rider and horse.”

Entering the river is as much of a challenge as going down the hill. Grit, endurance and stamina are proved in the 300 foot span from the bank to bank crossing by the jockey and horse.

Veteran Jockey Casey Nissen explained, “The race use to be won by which horse could swim the best. A horse has to have endurance for the water. It’s pretty easy for a horse to panic and get in trouble. We have a good safety system. If a horse does have trouble the boats move in and get him to shore.” Rescuer Dale Peasley said, “There are two boats, three jet skies, and four rescue horses.”

The horses regain their footing and continue the race, galloping at full speed the 500 feet into the rodeo’s arena where thousands of people are gathered to witness their victory.

President of the Owners and Jockeys Association Pete Palmer said, “Each night the winner takes home a beaded halter and a buckle, plus his winnings. At the end of the race on Sunday, the overall winner with the most points will be ‘King of the Hill.’ The jockey and owner will each take home a trophy saddle, too.”

This world famous celebration of bravery doesn’t stand alone but is combined with the Stampede Rodeo, the Omak Encampment Pow wow, and a myriad of other entertainments to refresh the community’s memories, while adding the bonus of increased revenues to the Tribe and local folks. Stampede Board Office Mgr. Sarah Grooms said $18 million was brought in this year.

Organizations for the protection of animals, such as PETA, PAWS and The Humane Society have criticized the Tribe and local communities for the race.

Palmer said, “Last year I received about 7000 hate emails. This year, about 60. We had the National Veterinarian Association from D.C. come in to watch the vet checks, practices and races. He was impressed. We take pride in what we do here.”

Skokomish Elder Delbert Miller said, “The old people way back had a breath that was inherited from their ancient people. When you watch a weaver doing their work, they pause and take a breath, a carver takes a breath. When they are told they cannot use this sacred breath that means the people themselves are short of breath because they are not getting to use the same breath their ancestors did. When you begin to hear an unsatisfied people, an unfulfilled people, that means they are losing a little of their breath. They need to continue that breath to make a working life. It is only the outside world that can’t understand what it means.”

Brothers Edward and Loren Marchand said, “We’ve been watching this since we were little guys, thinking we could run off that hill one of these days. We want to show the kids now. They watch us and carry it on.”

Loren won the last three years. This year he was injured with a broken foot and chipped knee on the first day.

“These kinds of cultural functions are our life’s being and not just an event. We have been doing them since time immemorial,” said former Tribal Chair Colleen Cawston. “It’s up to us to teach the little ones that with rights come responsibilities and that we are blessed to be born who we are.”

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