Native Sun News: Family from Crow Tribe carries on rodeo tradition

The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

Michelle Walking Bear. Photo from Facebook

Indian Rodeo – A family tradition
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

LAME DEER, Mont. –– After making a scorching 2.87 second run to win the Ladies breakaway roping event at the annual Northern Cheyenne Memorial Day rodeo, Michelle Walking Bear, Crow tribal member said, “I was so happy to win today in memory of my father, Leland Walking Bear, and I’m so grateful my Mother was here. Dad taught me how to rope and Mom has always been my rock.”

The 2015 Northern Plains Cowboy Classic rodeo at Lame Deer, Mont. kicked off the 2015 Indian rodeo season. Hundreds of tribal member contestants from Montana, North and South Dakota and even Arizona participated in the rodeo sponsored by the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and the Tribal Housing Authority. Although it was bulls, 6, and cowboys, 0, and many missed loops were thrown, the Indian cowboys and cowgirls will fine-tune their skills as the season progresses.

Marking her first win of the 2015 season, Michelle has made many trips to the rodeo pay window since she first started competing as a youngster. And now the young mother is teaching her own three children and other young aspiring rodeo athletes the sport.

“Indian rodeo is a family tradition,” she smiled.

The Northern Plains Indian Rodeo Association sanctioned the 2015 Northern Plains Cowboy Classic rodeo on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Image from Facebook

Last year, her oldest son Spur White Clay, 12 years old, won First place at a large Canadian rodeo, while daughter Susanna White Clay, age 11, and youngest son Slick White Clay, age 10 are also “entering up."

“They are going to be good ropers,” Michelle predicts.

And of course, no rodeo trip is complete without her mother Marlene Walking Bear, retired educator.

“Somebody has to do the driving,” she laughs. “And besides we do everything together.”

The smiling little Crow girl sitting on Sugar Daddy is Michelle’s niece Zay Alden who refused to dismount from the gentle roping horse, kindly accommodated.

Leland Walking Bear, 1946-2012, was a charter member of the Indian National Rodeo Finals.

In 2015 the Indian National Rodeo Finals will mark its’ 40th anniversary at the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. The late Leland Walking Bear, Crow tribal member was a charter member of that organization and long-time fierce competitor. As a very young child, Michelle could often be seen at Indian rodeos, perched in front of her father’s saddle while he encouraged her interest in roping and good horses. From now until October hundreds of contestants and families will travel far and wide across Indian Country seeking to win a berth at that favorite Indian Country event, the Walking Bears among them.

Michele has already been an INFR contestant twelve times, the first in 1991 when she was 14. In 2009 she was the International Indian World Champion (U.S. and Canadian Rodeo Association) and in 2014, the “tour” champion in her region. A tough contender in Ladies Breakaway in any rodeo association, she has yet to win the “INFR gold’, but will give every effort to make 2015 her year.

“Even the best roper needs to be mounted, that is, have an athletic and highly trained horse. Roping is a finely tuned partnership between the human and the horse with no margin for error,” explained Max Small, Northern Cheyenne veteran roper, friend to the late Leland Waling Bear.

Donna Small, a Shoshone has lived at Northern Cheyenne and close to the Crow reservation for years, an INFR Barrel racing champion (2011) and 4 time tour champion. Michelle has idolized Donna, appreciating her mentorship and encouragement. Donna also has the utmost respect for the young Crow woman who trains her own horses, just as she does.

“Things have to click between you and your horse. You have to be in sync, sometimes hard-to-come by. But sometimes we are blessed with special horse friends,” she explained.

Donna’s big paint horse “Boogie” has been the INFR barrel racing horse of the year.

In 2014, Michelle Walking Bear was a Indian National Rodeo Finals tour champion in breakaway roping. Photo from Facebook

While many of her competitors often pay high dollar for horses “ready to go”, Michelle has personally raised and trained her own rope horses, all originating from Star Bert, a stud owned and managed by her father.

“We couldn’t afford to pay a lot for a trained horse, so Michelle had to make her own, from the fine horses her father raised,” commented Marlene.

Michelle’s current horse “Sugar Daddy”, 12 years old, was selected as the INFR breakaway horse of the year in 2013, a highly coveted honor among horse people. Although her beloved partner is now in his prime with many good years left, Michelle is already working with other younger horses from the same bloodlines. These prospects will require years of patient and skillful training before ready for the intense and exacting breakaway competition where even one-hundredth of a second can mean the difference between victory and defeat. In pursuit of excellence, Michelle got training advice from INFR calf roping champion, Preston Williams, Paiute, once called the world’s greatest roper by Cowboy and Indians magazine.

Williams was a close friend of Michelle’s father, the two cowboys sharing the same training philosophy. “Treat a horse like a human. Horses are like people,” the elder Walking Bear often reminded his young daughter.

“I respect and trust Preston and can almost hear my father talking through him,” she said.

With the shy smile and laughing blue-gray eyes inherited from her late father, Michelle said: “We are all so glad rodeo season is here again. It is our favorite time as a family. I would like to remind young Native people to honor your mother and your father.”

(Clara Caufield can be reached

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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