- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 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.”

Round up flight or car for trip to Pendleton

Pendleton is about a 3½-hour drive east of Portland on Interstate 84, through the Columbia River Gorge, past points of interest including Multnomah Falls and Bonneville Dam (usually open to visitors). Horizon Air serves Pendleton from Portland and Seattle.


Early phases, or “slack” rounds, Tuesday through Thursday mornings are free or at most $2. Those who score high enough go on to the regular rodeo Friday and Saturday afternoons. Tickets range from $11 to $18, and some of the better sections already are listed as sold out. The Pendleton Bull-Riding Classic, complete with fireworks, is held separately Monday and Tuesday of Round-Up week. Phone 541/276-2553 or Ticketmaster for tickets. The free Round-Up Hall of Fame under a grandstand offers a well-researched multimedia look at the history of the Round-Up.


The nighttime pageant Wednesday through Saturday depicts the settling of the West from the Indians’ and settlers’ points of view. It ends with an amazing square dance — on horseback. Tickets range from $7 to $13, with special prices some days for family groups, seniors and children. A dance and gambling hall, free with a pageant ticket, follows.


The tour of Pendleton’s turn-of-the-century underbelly, which was housed beneath the streets of the older part of town, offers a look at often forgotten aspects of the Wild West. Some historians are skeptical of some of the information passed out, but it’s a lot of fun. It highlights the bootlegging, gambling days and the Chinese immigrants who used to have to live there.

It ends with a tour through the former Cozy Rooms bordello, restored but no longer open for business as such. Reservations recommended, especially in summer. Most tickets cost $5 to $10. The Underground organization also operates the Working Girls Hotel, which really is a hotel these days. Four rooms, one suite, no smoking, no children. Phone 541/276-0730.


A wide variety of the usual chains are in Pendleton, as are many independents. Confirm rates for Round-Up week before booking. Many Round-Up fans bring campers and motor homes, and some residents rent out rooms in their homes. Private home space is coordinated by the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce, 541/276-7411 after April 1. Some residents rent out tent space in their yards.


Pendleton woolen goods, even more than the Round-Up, have put this city on the map. The mill gives free scheduled weekday tours, but though its famous blankets and yard goods are still made there, much of the clothing is manufactured elsewhere. The sales room handles an extensive line of Pendleton goods. Phone 541/276-6911.


This 45,000-square-foot, $18 million cultural center, opened in 1998, was built by the tribes to tell their own story. It does that, and more, with tasteful, low-key displays of Indian arts, history, culture and legend along with insights as to how the white pioneers in the area actually lived. It’s worth a morning or more before the afternoon rodeo performance.

The gift shop offers carefully chosen items, many by regional artisans, and a cafe. Daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days. Phone 541/966-9748. To get there, drive four miles east of Pendleton on Interstate 84 to Exit 216 and Oregon 131.

Follow the signs for the tribe-owned Wildhorse Resort, which also includes a casino, a hotel, golf course and RV facilities; phone 541/276-2323.

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