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Mul-Chu-Tha All-Indian Rodeo: Riding, Roping, and Racing on the Res

Marcy has lengthy experience in print and online media, including writing for traditional publishers as well as for self-publication.

Tribal royalty, including this lovely attendant to Miss Gila River, offered a smile and handshake to visitors.

Tribal royalty, including this lovely attendant to Miss Gila River, offered a smile and handshake to visitors.

Mul-Chu-Tha: A Community Event

March, here in the Arizona desert, brings wildflowers, warm days, and enough rodeos to keep rough stock fans away from their usual weekend chores. The annual Mul-Chu-Tha All-Indian Rodeo, less than an hour's drive south of Phoenix in the small town of Sacaton, offers the added pleasure of joining the people of the Gila River Indian Community for their largest annual event. The Gila River Indian Community is a sprawling reservation of nearly 400,000 acres once farmed by the ancient Hohokam people. Now home to the Akimel O'odham (Pima) and Pee Posh (Maricopa) people, it warmly welcomes the public to the annual fair and rodeo. I do mean warmly: although we were clearly Anglo visitors, my husband and I received broad smiles and a sincere, "Welcome!" from each tribal member staffing the ticket booth and gates as we entered. We were very much in the minority—but made to feel very much at home.

The rodeo participants, however, must be verifiably of at least 1/4 Indian blood. Contestants came from locations as distant as Alberta, Canada, although many were of northern Arizona tribes such as the Navajo. Indian riders are oft-seen in the non-Indian rodeos throughout the state, but at the All-Indian rodeos, you will only see Indian contestants.

Mul-Chu-Tha, incidentally, means "foot race" in the Pima language. Traditionally, the Pima people ran foot races as sport. Running was also a means of communicating within the tribe, with runners sharing information with members in other districts or villages. The name was chosen for the fair as an apt means of honoring that tradition. The Mul-Chu-Tha fair still hosts a half-marathon for its runners.

Many of you will be familiar with the name "Ira Hayes." The World War I veteran made famous by his depiction in the flag-raising photo at Iwo Jima, and later memorialized in the Johnny Cash song, was a member of the Gila River Indian Community. In February, not long before the annual Mul-Chu-Tha fair, Mr. Hayes and his fellow veterans are commemorated by a parade and pow-wow in Sacaton.

A saddle-bronc rider.

A saddle-bronc rider.

A List of Mul-Chu-Tha Rodeo Events

For rodeo virgins, following is a brief introduction to each event at the Mul-Chu-Tha rodeo.

1. Rough Stock Riding

"Rough stock" events involve cowboys vying for the best eight-second ride on a bucking animal, be it a bronc or a bull. The saddle bronc, bareback bronc and bull riding events pit rider against an uncooperative animal. In each such event, "pick-up" riders are present in the arena and work to ensure the safety of the rider as well as managing the animal as necessary. During the bull-riding event, two "bull fighters" and a rodeo clown are also in the ring. The bull fighters, wearing clownish clothes, move into action as soon as the bull rider is on the ground, serving to distract the bull and prevent him from trampling, goring or otherwise injuring the rider. Should the rider get hung up on the bull, it's the bull fighter's responsibility to get in close and personal and free the rider. It's not a job for the faint of heart—or the slow of foot.

On the day we attended, a bull fighter stepped in to save the rider on two noteworthy occasions, quickly moving between the bull and the fallen rider before the bull could inflict serious harm. These bulls were among the more ill-tempered I've seen; one, in particular, stands out as a particularly irascible animal. Dubbed "Cookie Monster," the bull was a monster indeed. Unwilling to exit the arena when the pick-up riders attempted to herd him, he instead turned on the riders on multiple occasions, lunging at their horses' flanks and refusing to pass through the exit gate. The pick-up riders are, as the rodeo clown put it, the unsung heroes of the rodeo, quietly getting the job done throughout the day.

During the bronc events, the pick-up riders are charged with moving up alongside the bucking horse after a rider has been thrown and promptly releasing the bucking strap. They can move the horse through the exit gate. When a rider has successfully passed that magic eight-second mark and the buzzer has sounded, the pick-up riders move alongside him and the rider dismounts the bucking horse by grabbing onto the horse or rider for an easier dismount.

At the 2014 Mul-Chu-Tha rodeo we attended, the pick-up riders were joined by a young rider who was learning the job well. Quite a hand already, he was capable and competent as he roped the stock, herded, and assisted with the safety of riders on the ground.

The position of "rodeo clown" has evolved over the years. Once the rodeo clown performed both the function of ensuring rider safety and of offering entertainment and banter throughout the slower moments of the rodeo when livestock was being managed or the tractor combing the arena. Now, the position is primarily entertainment, with the more athletic bull fighters handling the riskier responsibilities. The rodeo clown focuses on encoring audience participation, telling corny jokes, and maintaining audience interest while wranglers move livestock or handle other logistical issues. The rodeo clown at the performance we attended wise-cracked frequently about the bulls coming in his direction until the frightening moment in which a bull briefly pinned him against the rails. Although it made contact with his ankle against the fence, he appeared unhurt until he flung himself over the fence and took a hard fall against the ground. Laughter turned to concern until, minutes later, he was assisted by medics in standing and offering a reassuring wave. Clowning around in the vicinity of a bull weighing over 1,500 pounds is always a risky business.

A bull rider parts ways with his mount.

A bull rider parts ways with his mount.

2. Steer Wrestling

The Steer Wrestling event, traditionally known as "bull dogging" requires two riders to exit the chute as a steer is released. One rider, known as the "hazer," attempts to control the animal's movements so that the other rider on the opposite side of the steer may dismount his horse at a gallop and launch himself at the steer's head. He then grapples with the steer, grabs his horns, and wrestles him to the ground. The steer must be fully down and on his side.

A tie-down roper in action.

A tie-down roper in action.

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3. Tie Down Roping and Team Roping

Tie Down Roping requires a lone rider to rope a calf around the neck and dally the rope to his saddle horn. He'll then dismount his horse, approach the calf and maneuver it to the ground, and then tie the calf's legs so it cannot stand back up. The horse must not only stop and stand as the rider does so, but is trained to take up the slack in the rope by steadily backing up as necessary. These "calves" are not newborn calves crying for their mothers but tough, strong young cattle. Having participated in branding, vaccinating and castrating much younger calves than these, I can tell you they are much stronger than they look.

In team roping, the teams of two are comprised of a "header" and a "heeler." The header first ropes the steer's horns (which are protected, incidentally, by a leather guard), the heeler then roping the steer's hind legs while the header turns him to the left. The heeler must catch both hind legs with the loop or will be given a time penalty.

The Mul-Chu-Tha rodeo offers a Century Team Roping as well as a 4-Tribes Team Roping. The Century team roping is open to riders who are each 50 years old or above—their combined ages exceeding the "century" mark, thus the name. The 4-Tribes Team Roping is only open to members of the four O'odham sister tribes of Arizona, the Ak-Chin, Gila River, Salt River and Tohono O'odham.

A breakaway roper.

A breakaway roper.

4. Women's Events

Let's Hear a Woohoo for the Women!

Rodeo is dominated by the men. Women don't compete in the rough stock events. Often, they are visible at their "own" rodeo on an off-prime day—for example, the Friday afternoon before the more popular performances—or limited to barrel racing on the "prime" days of Saturday and Sunday. The Mul-Chu-Tha rodeo, though, features not only women's barrel racing on the weekends but also women's breakaway roping and women's team roping events.

Breakaway roping requires the woman to throw a solid loop onto the steer and then release the end of the rope rather than dally it around their saddle horn, hence the name "breakaway." The steer is not brought to the ground or tied.

Team roping rules are the same for both men and women, although the events are gender-separate.

The ladies' barrel racing is a race against the clock. The Mul-Chu-Tha rodeo, like most, uses the "cloverleaf" barrel pattern, three barrels set in a triangle—two barrels forming the base nearest the rider, with one barrel on the far end of the arena from the rider. The rider may approach either of the near two barrels first, riding at a gallop and then turning close around it, before approaching the second near barrel. She must turn that one before running to the third barrel, turning around it, and then ride as fast as possible to the timer at the end of the arena through which she entered. Should she or the horse knock over any barrels, she'll receive a time penalty. As you watch a barrel race, you'll see that riders try to get in as near to the barrel as possible without knocking it over. Wide turns are time-wasters that are difficult to recover from.

The chutes open on the wild horse race.

The chutes open on the wild horse race.

5. Wild Horse Race

If you've seen the most recent remake of My Friend Flicka you may recall the scene involving the "wild horse race" rodeo event. The Mul-Chu-Tha rodeo sponsors a wild horse race at the end of the rodeo's Saturday performance. Twelve teams competed in two rounds with the six best teams returning on Sunday. Six wild, untrained horses are put into the rough stock chutes and haltered. When the horses are released, teams of three must saddle, mount and ride their designated horse. For the performance we watched, only one rider was successful in getting into the saddle and riding to the end of the arena.

The wild horse race is a free-for-all of sorts involving six frightened horses doing their best to avoid being saddled. No bucking straps are put on them; unlike the rough stock events, the purpose is not for the horse to buck violently but for the rider to successfully ride them to the finish. They are not seasoned bucking horses, but horses that have clearly not been handled—nor have they been bred to buck.

Perhaps most of the action came after the successful rider had dismounted. The unruly horses were, unlike veteran broncs, unaware they must exit the arena, and loathe to pass through the exit gate. Horses are herd animals and will bunch together. Watching more than 20 cowboys on foot trying to drive six wild horses through the exit gate was quite an event in itself.

Many of the reservations in the state are home to bands of wild (feral, to be precise) horses that still roam freely.

A young rodeo fan represents a new generation.

A young rodeo fan represents a new generation.

On the Friday preceding the rodeo weekend, Mul-Chu-Tha hosts the All-Indian Jr. Rodeo. Youngsters up to age 17 compete in events appropriate for their age. The youngest cowboys and cowgirls may compete in mutton bustin', in which they ride a sheep, dummy roping, and stick horse events. Those in the nine to 13 age range may ride steers, rope, or barrel race, while the older teens can compete in bull riding, roping and barrel racing. If you've never watched mutton bustin', you'll soon be rooting for these youngest of rough stock riders in this wild and woolly event. I think it takes almost as much courage for a six-year old to ride a sheep in front of an audience as it does for a bronc rider to hop on a 1,200-pound bucking horse.

Admission and Other Fair Events

Admission to the Mul-Chu-Tha Fair and Rodeo is surprisingly affordable—especially if you're either a child or an "elder." I had great fun reminding my husband that, as he is above 55, he qualifies for "elder" admission at $4. Great fun, that is, until they extended that same price to me. Suddenly, it wasn't so amusing—yet who can complain about a thoughtful discount being extended, despite my protest? Besides, doesn't it sound much better being an elder—a term denoting respect—than a "Senior citizen?"

Nonetheless, that $4 (and only $6.00 if you're age 13 to 54) brings a great value. Carnival rides, such as the ferris wheel, are other children's attractions are available. All performances are included in the daily admission fee. Children under five attend free, and those aged six to 12 may attend for $4.00. Where else can you take a family for a day's fun at those prices? If you're planning for next year, admission is reduced on Community Day—Friday—which is also open to the public.

Although we were there for the rodeo, the fair itself offers far more. From a parade and a half-marathon to a horseshoe tournament, pow-wow and thoka (a traditional Native American game similar to lacrosse), excellent live bands and native dancers, there were too many performances to see in a day. Booths, food vendors and community information tents lined the fairgrounds. Those food tents offered traditional reservation fare (mutton stew, anyone?) and traditional fair food (corn dogs or sno-cones were readily available). Those of us who don't think a rodeo is complete without an Indian taco—fry bread smothered in beans, meat, lettuce and tomato—did not go away hungry. My Indian taco, I suspect, was made with mutton as well.

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