LAS VEGAS — Forget the desert sea of high rolling crowds and a billion neon lights. For nearly 25,000 visitors at the Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR) Nov. 5-9, Las Vegas was all about home sweet home.
“It’s custom for Native people to ride. It’s a natural ability we’ve developed over centuries right where we live and work,” said Willie Johns, a community outreach specialist in Brighton and an INFR commissioner.
Native life in rural America – steeped in family tradition, culture and daily work on farms and ranches – led 288 contestants to the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center, one of the largest indoor rodeo arenas in the U.S.
“In South Florida, we started raising and training Spanish horses generations ago. The cattle industry, plus raising sheep and goats, is the way our Native kids grow up,” said Johns, a former six-time INFR qualifier.
Dubbed the “Super Bowl for Indian cowboys,” the recent 38th annual event pit Native American rodeo champions from 11 regional rodeo associations beast to beast and athlete to athlete for world titles in bareback riding, breakaway roping, calf roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding and bull riding.
Team roping and barrel racing were also included.
INFR spokeswoman Perse Hooper said participants in the all-Indian event spanned most of Indian Country from Hollywood, Fla. to Omak, Wash.
Spectators filled the 4,600-seat area. In all, 73 Tribes, the largest contingent from the Navajo Nation, were represented in livestock suppliers and contestants.
“When we say all-Indian, we mean it,” Hooper said.
Contestants earned spots by racking up points in multiple regional rodeo events and national rodeo tours over the last year. More than a dozen cowboys and cowgirls from the Eastern Indian Rodeo Association (EIRA) packed up horses and saddles and headed west after earning leader board scores at rodeos in Immokalee, Big Cypress and Brighton.
Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman proclaimed Nov. 7 as INFR Day in honor of Native American Heritage Month.
“This is our day, Las Vegas,” called the arena announcer to a packed house of Stetson hats, Lucchese boots and Wrangler jeans-wearing fans. “And we have a lot of angry hamburger in the house,” he said referring to rough stock.
Daily go-rounds in every category whittled hometown rodeo heroes to the INFR championship rounds. Most EIRA members stood strong through the first and second rounds. Three Tribal members, bareback rider Jacoby Johns, of Okeechobee; calf roper Ivan Bruised Head, of Okeechobee; and junior bull rider Dyami Nelson, 14, carried high scores to the world championship.
Nelson scored 150 in two rides for fourth place overall. It was a good showing after fracturing his leg in a September competition, then riding only three times before INFR.
“I’ll be back next year. I’ll practice more and be ready to take it all,” he said.
The winner, Myles Dillon, of Batesland, S.D., won first place with 232 in three rides.
Johns earned no score after being tossed before the buzzer. Bruised Head landed in 13th place though he scored in the top three spots through the go-rounds and finished fastest in the final round.
Bruised Head jumped the barrier before the calf left the gate, penalizing him with an additional 10 seconds that stole a higher standing.
Adult barrel racers Boogie Jumper and Marilee Johns both tipped barrels in the third go-round for automatic losses. Junior barrel racers Kalgary Johns and Budah Jumper suffered the same fate on the third go-round.
Team ropers Josh Jumper and Preston Williams, of Big Cypress, and Justin Gopher and Hilliard Gopher, of Brighton, were put out in the third round, while Dayne Johns, of Brighton, was shut out of the steer wrestling category at his second round.
Spectators cheered every contestant with every elimination.
“We have top qualifiers here who prove they can do things. In rodeo, it doesn’t work out every day, but every day is a new day,” declared the announcer.
Norman Johns put on a good show with near perfect breakaway roping skills in the senior category but was shut out also in round three when his lasso missed the steer.
Among the male junior contestants, breakaway ropers Jacob Parks and Jaylen Baker were cut short with no scores in the second round. Baker also made it to round two for junior bull rider but did not advance.
“For all of the contestants, it’s an accomplishment just to get (to INFR),” said Stacy Parks, who traveled from Dania Beach to watch her son Jacob compete. “We’re proud of them all and next year we’ll be back to kick butt.”