Keira Simonson saddles up her barrel racing horse, Diesel, while her mother gets a bridle from their trailer. For some Native Americans – particularly those who belong to federally unrecognized tribes without reservations, like the Little Shell – rodeos offer a way to stay connected to their culture and community. Published in The Guardian.
Rodeo is everywhere in Keira Simonson’s life. It’s in the 22-year-old’s kitchen as a team picture pinned to the fridge. It’s hanging in her bathroom as a horse-themed towel. It’s decorating her truck floor as muddy boots with spurs attached. It’s her weekends and her escape.
As an enrolled member of the more than 5,400-strong Little Shell Chippewa Tribe of Montana – which was, until recently, federally unrecognized and without a designated reservation – Simonson often felt removed from the larger Native American community and its culture. But rodeos have become her way of staying connected.
“It’s just something I crave – to constantly be going to another one,” she says.
Keira and her brother, Buckshot, wait for her run at the Copper Springs Ranch rodeo, just outside of Bozeman, Montana.
Decorations, most of which are turquoise and have to do with horses, adorn the walls of Keira's bathroom. "It's just something I crave," said Keira. "To constantly be going to another one.”
For the more than 400 other federally unrecognized, landless tribes in the US, communal spaces like rodeos have become integral.
It’s what Circe Sturm, a professor of anthropology and the co-director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Native American and Indigenous Studies program, calls a pan-Indian space. It allows people to come together to experience a sense of being Indigenous.
“When you have people who have had their land base disrupted, like the Little Shell community, then those spaces become very important,” said Sturm.
Simonson, who has been riding since she was three years old, regularly competes in the Indian National Finals Rodeo tour (INFR), the main Native American rodeo organization in the US. Most recently, she won the women’s barrel racing tour championship for the 2019 season.
In a barrel race, the rider and their horse burst straight out of the gate, kicking up thick, russet clods of dirt. Next they head for three barrels set up in a cloverleaf pattern around the arena, turning sharply around each before charging for the finish line at breakneck speed.
Keira rides Diesel around a barrel during the barrel race at the UM Rodeo in April, 2019. The announcer described Keira as the best in the region, and Diesel as the fastest black horse he'd seen.
Keira, 4 at the time, sits on her dads horse a year after learning how to ride. Archival image provided by Judy Simonson.
The INFR, formed in 1976, sanctions more than 700 rodeos a year across the US for people ages eight to 80. Women and girls’ involvement in Indian rodeo has been steadily increasing since the early 1990s, says a spokesperson for the organization. And while mainstream American rodeo has long been dominated by white contestants, Simonson says that recent years have seen more Native Americans competing at pro rodeos and other open and amateur rodeos not specifically designated for Native Americans.
In the remote north-eastern plains of Montana near the Canadian border, more than 30 miles from the nearest incorporated town, Simonson awakens most days around 8am on the family ranch. She shuffles to the stables to feed her beloved horse, Diesel, the first of several chores she and her brother, Buckshot Simonson, complete around the ranch.
Diesel was once described by a rodeo announcer as the fastest black horse he’d ever seen. But in the days leading up to competition, Simonson rests her horse to keep him fresh. The bulk of her preparation lies in the logistics – travel plans, which she organizes in a color-coordinated calendar, and readying the trailer.
Inside the black and silver gooseneck unit, there are hay bales, five-gallon buckets and jugs filled with grain and water, saddles, brushes, combs and clothing. There’s even a bed made of wood chips a foot thick for Diesel to sleep on in the horse stalls.
“He loves it. Some people will walk by and be like, ‘Is your horse alive?’ recalled Simonson about Diesel’s sleeping arrangements in the trailer.
Keira and Buckshot stand for the national anthem that kicked off the Copper Springs Ranch Rodeo. Being half Little Shell, half White presents another layer to her identity.
Keira adjusts the saddle on Diesel.
Keira adjusts her collar in the mirror before competing. Even at those rodeos, she says, she sometimes feels white compared with everyone else. At other rodeos, she sometimes feels acutely aware of her darker skin and hair, and the stereotypes that come with her appearance. “They probably look at me and they think, ‘Oh, she’s just Native’,” said Simonson.
Keira shows her championship belt from the Fort Peck Indian Rodeo ladies barrel race. Though being mixed challenges her identity at times, Native American rodeos have become home for her.
At the INFR events, Simonson says she’s developed a makeshift family, where she can joke around using “Native humor” – sarcastic, loud and full of laughter. She can share her Native American experience, and learn about different tribes and practices along the way, including her own.
But even at those rodeos, she says she feels white compared with everyone else. Her mother is half Little Shell, half white, while her father is white. At other rodeos, she sometimes feels acutely aware of her darker skin and hair, and the stereotypes that come with her appearance.
“They probably look at me and they think, ‘Oh, she’s just Native’,” said Simonson.
Keira jokes around with her aunt, Billie Jo, and her mother, Judy, while waiting for her brother's run to start.
Photos of Keira and her sister, Kiana Simonson, from recent barrel races hang on a wall in their Missoula home as Keira video chats with a friend from the UM rodeo team.
Keira gets her eyebrows done during her monthly appointment.
Keira plays in the quarterfinals of the University of Montana intermural co-ed basketball championships. The all Native team she’s a part of is one of her few connections to Native American society in college.
The Little Shell Chippewa, like many Native American tribes, have a complicated relationship with identity due to European colonization.
The Little Shell Chippewa are successors of the historical Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians – a part of the Ojibwe, also known as the Chippewa, tribe – whose land included more than 60 million acres throughout the northern midwestern US and north into Canada. In the early 19th century, French men came from the north and married into many Ojibwe families.
The absence of culture and community are common among Little Shell people as a result of being landless, says Kim McKeehan, a Little Shell Tribal Council member and mental health therapist.
“People don’t have a place to practice cultural practices or build an economy. Those are the things that really create community,” said McKeehan.
McKeehan explains that the lack of community can permeate into individuals’ sense of identity and belonging, too. But she says it’s also made Little Shell people incredibly resilient and independent.
“Just because cultural traditions and languages were washed out of the mouths of our grandmothers and beaten out of our communities doesn’t mean that they’re not ours still. We can reach back and get them.”
The Little Shell do not yet have a reservation of their own, having refused to sign a land treaty with the US in the late 19th century that they believed to be unjust. But this state of limbo will soon change.
A bill that would provide 200 acres of reservation land was approved by Congress this year as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and was signed into law by Donald Trump just before Christmas.
“It’s almost like it’s surreal,” said the Little Shell chairman, Gerald Gray. “It was a long, long road for us – for everybody. It’s a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”
The reservation will still take at least a year to materialize, said Gray. He added that there’s no blueprint for newly recognized tribes, so they want to take their time to do it right.
“My motto has always been the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I will always be loud and proud. I’ll never stop until this actually gets done.”
Keira and Alexis Rose, a close friend, mess around on horseback together at the first University of Montana rodeo team practice of 2019 in February, outside of Lolo, Montana.
Keira relaxes at home with her dog after studying for finals.
A portrait of Jesus Christ hangs on Keira's living room wall in her Missoula, MT home aside cowboy hats.
Keira herds steers that will be used for the University of Montana rodeo team's practice that evening.