By Stephanie Keith
PAWHUSKA, Okla. (Reuters) - Native American tribes from the United States and Canada converged on Oklahoma for the Indian Relay Horse Race this weekend, helping to revive horse heritage in the state and symbolizing a return to normal after pandemic restrictions.
The setting in Oklahoma was particularly apt, given the state's Native American population of nearly 10% and the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling re-affirming that about half the state's territory falls under American Indian jurisdiction.
Competitors race three different horses bareback around a one-mile track, jumping off one horse and onto another between laps, often in tribal regalia including war bonnets, with the horses painted in traditional style.
Horse relays are one of the most popular pastimes in Native American culture to have survived the U.S. genocide, and horse heritage remains strong with many tribes in the western United States.
But equine traditions have been less durable in Oklahoma, where many Native Americans were resettled in the Trail of Tears of the 1830s, when indigenous people were forced from their lands in the southeast onto specially designated territories further west.
Organizer Jim Stevens called the relay the biggest in the known history of Indian Relay races in terms of tribes, people and vendors signed up to participate. About 40 tribes competed for $140,000 in prize money.
"This was the first big event for the Native Americans since the COVID shutdown and everybody was ready to get off the reservation," Stevens said.
The individual and team races have separate classes of competition for chiefs, warriors, elders and women. Each rider is paired with a mugger, the name for the person who holds the horse still during the transition. Little kids learn by riding sheep.
The host town of Pawhuska, named after a 19th century Osage chief, is on the Osage reservation. Pawhuska is also hosting the film crew making "Killers of the Flower Moon," adapted from the book by David Grann about white people who murdered Osage tribal members to get their land rights. The Martin Scorsese movie stars Leonardo di Caprio.
The five-day Indian Relay, held at the Osage County Fairgrounds, ended with a stirring finish to the men's championship relay, the premier event. The War Chiefs team from Wyoming was leading until the final exchange, when its rider slipped off his horse and into mud during a rainstorm, enabling the Abrahamson team from Washington state to overtake the lead and claim the prize.
(Reporting by Stephanie Keith in Pawhuska, Oklahoma; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Leslie Adler)