Indian Relay Racing: Fast, Furious, and Dangerous

O’siyo. American Indian relay races are becoming a very popular sport. Although the exact origins of the sport are unclear, some say that the races have been in existence since the early 1900s. A documentary of this fascinating sport will be presented by Montana PBS Monday, November 18, 2013.

From left, Zack Rock and Luke Rock head into the home stretch during a relay race at the Crow Native Days in Crow Agency.

From left, Zack Rock and Luke Rock head into the home stretch during a relay race at the Crow Native Days in Crow Agency.

Excerpt: Changing Horses, By Marga Lincoln, Independent Record

“A new documentary by Montana PBS, Indian Relay, focuses on this unique and dangerous sport. Before the film premieres nationally in November…Filmed by Charles Dye, a Northwest Regional Emmy-award winner, it was written by Montana educator and poet M.L. Smoker, who is Assiniboine and Sioux.

You’ll see incredible and daring race film footage from a host of relay races in Indian Country and then the Indian Relay National Championships in Blackfoot, Idaho, in 2011.

Zack Rock, a MM Express Indian Relay team rider, is featured in a PBS documentary on Indian Relay racing.

Zack Rock, a MM Express Indian Relay team rider, is featured in a PBS documentary on Indian Relay racing.

Along the way, you travel with rider Myles Murray from Browning, Zack Rock and Kendall Old Horn of Crow Agency and Lance Tissisimit and Alonzo “Punkin” Coby, who are Shoshone-Bannock from Fort Hall, Idaho.

In this sport, riders race bareback at top gallop around a track. After one lap, barely slowing down, they switch horses by leaping down from one and onto another. After galloping around the track the second lap, the riders again leap onto a fresh horse and race to the finish line. These riders are very athletic and very fearless,said Old Horn, who has been involved in Indian relay racing for 37 years.

Cameron Falls Down, of Lodge Grass, Mont., celebrates a 2nd place finish during the World Champion Indian Relay Races on Wednesday, July 7, 2013 in Sheridan, Wyo. Blaine McCartney:Wyoming Tribune Eagle)

Cameron Falls Down, of Lodge Grass, Mont., celebrates a 2nd place finish during the World Champion Indian Relay Races on Wednesday, July 7, 2013 in Sheridan, Wyo. Blaine McCartney:Wyoming Tribune Eagle)

You could take any Indian relay rider and he could play with the best basketball and football players. But you can’t take the best football or basketball player and put them in Indian relay. Professional jockeys wouldn’t touch Indian relay with a 10-foot stick. The degree and skill it takes to be an Indian relay rider is night and day from any other sport.

Race at Westwward Ho! Parade in Pendleton Round-Up Sunday, Sept. 8, 2009 in Pendleton, Oregon. Photo- East Oregon Paper.

Race at Westwward Ho! Parade in Pendleton Round-Up Sunday, Sept. 8, 2009 in Pendleton, Oregon. Photo- East Oregon Paper.

There’s quite a bit of choreography that’s involved, said Dye, the film’s director and producer. It takes a real trained team effort. There’s also quite a bit of chaos and danger on the track throughout the race.

His interest in Indian relay was first piqued years ago, when he was filming the Montana PBS documentary, “Before There Were Parks,” which showed the views of Native people on the creation of Yellowstone and Glacier National parks. It aired at the time of Ken Burns’ 2009 PBS series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

Jasper Half Jr., left, and his brother, Chico, apply ice to the front legs of one of their horses prior to the annual World Champion Indian Relay Races on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 in Sheridan, Wyo. Blaine McCartney:Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Jasper Half Jr., left, and his brother, Chico, apply ice to the front legs of one of their horses prior to the annual World Champion Indian Relay Races on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 in Sheridan, Wyo. Blaine McCartney:Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

My curiosity was building,” said Dye, who had been seeing photos in different homes showing various Indian relay races. I couldn’t figure out the photos. It didn’t look like standard horse racing.

When Aaron Pruitt, director of content at MontanaPBS, heard Dye first describe this crazy, dangerous, exhilarating sport, he was surprised.

Trevor Bird, of Lodge Grass, Mont., paints the horses for team Souix Pass prior to the annual World Champion Indian Relay Races on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 in Sheridan, Wyo. (Blaine McCartney:Wyoming Tribune Eagle)

Trevor Bird, of Lodge Grass, Mont., paints the horses for team Souix Pass prior to the annual World Champion Indian Relay Races on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 in Sheridan, Wyo. (Blaine McCartney:Wyoming Tribune Eagle)

Indian Relay National Championship participants leap from one horse to another while their team members hustle to contain the abandoned horse. State Fair in Blackfoot, Idaho. Photo- Independent Record.

Indian Relay National Championship participants leap from one horse to another while their team members hustle to contain the abandoned horse. State Fair in Blackfoot, Idaho. Photo- Independent Record.

Daniel He Does It, 6, of Lodge Grass, Mont., races around the stables pretending to race on a horse prior to the annual World Champion Indian Relay Races on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 in Sheridan, Wyo. (Blaine McCartney:Wyoming Tribune Eagle).

Daniel He Does It, 6, of Lodge Grass, Mont., races around the stables pretending to race on a horse prior to the annual World Champion Indian Relay Races on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 in Sheridan, Wyo. (Blaine McCartney:Wyoming Tribune Eagle).

I’m a native Montanan,” said Pruitt, “and I’d never heard of this. We were thrilled to tell this contemporary and popular story.

It’s also been selected by PBS’ five-time Emmy Award-winning series “Independent Lens,” and will premiere before national public television audiences on Nov. 18.

An old license plate of the Kirkaldie Relay team, nailed to their barn near Hayes, Montana Credit: Charles Dye.

An old license plate of the Kirkaldie Relay team, nailed to their barn near Hayes, Montana Credit: Charles Dye.

Video clip of  a Relay Race Here:

“It’s a unique and beautiful sport. It’s just amazing. Those thoroughbreds are huge. These guys are brave, and these horses are too. The horses are also athletes.” ~ Charles Dye~ Director and producer of Indian Relay

Category: sports