- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

PENDLETON, Ore. — Rob Bell sits inside chute No. 5 atop Inside Out, a ton of snorting Brahma bull carefully chosen for his bad attitude and general dislike of people.

Someone shouts, “Let ‘er buck,” the slogan of the Pendleton Round-Up. That’s what Inside Out does, leaving the Canadian rider on the ground.

It happens each year for four days in the second full week of September (Sept. 15 through 18 this year), when this friendly, normally placid eastern Oregon city of 16,600 at the foot of the Blue Mountains hosts more than 50,000 visitors for one of the nation’s biggest rodeos and premiere Wild West celebrations.

Even though this year’s event is seven months away, a spot check of Pendleton motels last month found that many were already booked solid for Round-Up week, frequently by people who had made reservations as they left the 2003 rodeo. They are drawn back year after year by fast action, splendid horses and horsemanship.

Reservation clerks say rooms sometimes open up later in the year. Accommodations in surrounding towns such as Hermiston, Umatilla and Walla Walla, Wash., and La Grande, Ore., are easier to get.

Last year, more than 700 riders and ropers, including many of the world’s best, took part. Round-Up is more than a rodeo, though. It’s an attitude.

The Round-Up and the roaring town that spawned it have quieted since the event began in 1910.

Monk Carden, 94, a rodeo clown at the Round-Up in the 1920s and 1930s, remembers.

“During the moonshine days, during Round-Up, if they caught you with a bottle, they couldn’t put you in jail because the jails were full,” he says. “All they could do was to pour it out on the ground. Word got out, and that made Pendleton mighty popular. Anyway, if someone had a bottle, he probably tried to drink it all at once so he wouldn’t get caught.”

Mr. Carden says he would sneak into town as a small boy on Saturday nights just to watch the fights.

It’s different now. City Manager Larry Lehman says even an open container downtown, where the celebration is in full tilt during Round-Up week, is rare.

These days, Pendleton is a comfortable, unpretentious, openly friendly middle-class town that retains a Western flavor. While the Round-Up fiercely defends its traditions and Old West flavor, it, too, has become more family-friendly.

Round-Up historians recall one steer wrestler in the early days who bit his quarry on the lip until the critter went down, something the East Oregonian newspaper called “a mighty classy exhibition.” Veterinarians and animal rights representatives are on scene these days.

For years under a grandstand in the Let ‘er Buck Room bar, young ladies known as “buckle-bunnies” would bare all from the waist up and then don a T-shirt that said they had done so. Authorities made them knock that off a year or so ago.

The late author Ken Kesey documented the tradition and more, in his way, in his novel about the Round-Up, “The Last Go-Round.”

More than 150 tepees go up on the Round-Up grounds each year, and some families from area tribes have been coming for generations. More would, Round-Up directors say, but there isn’t room.

The script of the Happy Canyon Night show, a pageant depicting the development of the West as seen by the Indians, then the settlers, was written in 1916 and includes some turn-of-the-century stereotypes. Yet hundreds of tribal volunteers participate in roles that have been handed down from one generation to the next, and a narrative has been added that outlines the diseases, injustices and land-grab treaties that ended tribal ways of life.

The cowboys drawn to the Round-Up also have changed.

“It’s not the local guys off the local ranches anymore,” says Mr. Lehman, who has been city manager for the past 10 years. “That’s been a big change over the years.”

Riders come in from most Western states and as far away as Australia, paying hefty entry fees with no guarantees and a fair chance of getting injured in events such as steer-wrestling, bull-riding, bareback and saddle-bronc riding, barrel-racing and wild-cow milking.

“More are professional cowboys now, and while they are here to have a good time, because of the business they are in, they have to stay in top shape to compete,” he says.

Most riders are young, and few grow old at it. Grayer heads walk the sidelines with a limp or bent shoulder that suggests they were caught by the odds.

The Round-Up draws top talent because it is the last rodeo on a summer tour that leads up to the championships.

Many Indians who take part in Round-Up say they see it as a cultural statement, an assertion of their identity and a chance to hobnob with friends and relatives they haven’t seen all year.

Some complain that the Happy Canyon script doesn’t recognize the social and economic gains the tribes have made.

The Indian half of the popular nighttime pageant closes with the tribes, stripped of 45,000 square miles of their land, being forced onto the reservation.

“We hope to give people the opportunity to realize who we are today, not who we were, when the show ends,” says Bobbie Conner, director of the 46,000-square-foot Tamastslikt Cultural Center, which the tribes built on the reservation east of town.

She says she has missed just one Round-Up in 48 years and is an active participant in Happy Canyon. She would, however, like to see it rewritten. She says the plateau tribes have found that sitting down and working things out is better than confrontation. “Historically, the tribes were known for hospitality and hostility and were very good at both,” Miss Conner says.

Pageant directors tried to rework the script — with results nobody liked — and went back to the original.

Organizers of the Happy Canyon pageant defend it.

“This show depicts history. It has nothing to do with the present day and age,” says Doug Corey, a member of the Happy Canyon board of directors.

“The tribes work closely with us on the script to make changes to get it like it is today.”

He says of complaints about the pageant: “I don’t think that’s a general feeling among the tribal members.”

The Round-Up does exude a sense of tribal identity and pride, and a chance to display them.

Tribal participation in Round-Up Friday’s massive non-motorized Westward Ho parade of beautifully restored wagons, stagecoaches and other Western memorabilia is huge.

Indians who take part get a small honorarium for putting up their tepees, taking part in Happy Canyon or riding a horse in the rodeo. Many say they come for other reasons, however.

“I still bring my kids [to Happy Canyon]. We still ride in the shoot-‘em ups,” says Douglas Minthorn, a Cayuse member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. “I pass it on to them so they will know who they are.”

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