The young Navajo’s chinks partially hide the rope hanging from his saddle. A brightly beaded belt peeks out from beneath his leather vest, and his palm-leaf hat is pulled down low. As he rides between clusters of juniper, trailing well-fed Angus pairs down a fence line, he spies an errant piece of barbed wire on the ground. Spurring his Mustang pony, Charro, he reaches down from the saddle and scoops it up with the kind of grace born only to those Americans who’ve been horseback nearly 400 years. Coiling the wire between his hands, he floats across the white sage and hangs it on the next fence post, glancing again at the cattle.

Donovan Wilson, 23, carries the heritage of Indian and cowboy naturally. He rides for the 62,000-acre Padres Mesa Ranch on the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in America at 30,000 square miles.

I was drawn to this remote spot on old Route 66 because Wilson and other Native Americans have become some of the best cowboys in the world.

I’d been covering pro rodeo for more than a decade in 2008 when 25-year-old team roper Derrick Begay of Seba Dalkai, Ariz., and 20-year-old bull rider Spud Jones of Tohatchi, N.M., became the first Navajo cowboys in history to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo. And last year, Begay’s friend Erich Rogers of Round Rock, Ariz., became just the third Navajo to ride at the NFR. Intriguing, considering that Native Americans don’t even make up 1 percent of the nation’s population. In fact, according to the USDA’s census, roughly 30,400 Indians raised cattle in the United States in 2007, but they owned less than a third as much land as non-Indian ranchers—and earned less than a third the income.

When I moved to Arizona a couple of years ago and began working at Phoenix-area roping events, I was surprised to meet dozens of Indian ropers. Each week they’d drive hundreds of miles to pay good money and play cowboy. Perhaps Indians are easy to overlook because they live in such remote areas. And face-to-face, they tend to be very quiet people. The Indian cowboys I’ve met are aggressive yet silent—proud yet humble.

In January, two complete unknowns from Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation—Ryle Whitford, 20, and Ty St. Goddard, 22—roped faster than all their heroes in the Denver Coliseum to win one of the most prestigious indoor rodeos in America and $10,336 apiece. That’s when I decided to hit the road and see what’s happening inside our country’s reservations to produce this kind of talent, both in the arena and on the range.

Working cattle may not have felt completely unnatural to 19th-century Native Americans of the Great Plains, who already grazed horses and herded buffalo, but the economics of it did. In 1885, Indian Agent P.B. Hunt brought the Comanche several bulls and heifers in order to help them build a herd over a period of years. Instead, they either killed the cattle or sold them to white ranchers to buy food. They were more interested in horses, which symbolized wealth and status and were often bartered to arrange respectable marriages or offered as ceremonial gifts. Multiplying cow flesh (or horse flesh) and selling it by the pound was not of cultural value.

“Indians didn’t want to make big profits from their herds,” wrote Peter Iverson in When Indians Became Cowboys (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997). “They liked being able to kill a cow and share the meat with their friends.”

Such cultural norms were combined with early federal policies that chopped up tribal lands into tiny “allotments,” which led to overgrazing and the decimation of herds.

“They say we’re sovereign but, because of so much interference from federal regulations, we’ve never had the freedom to successfully ranch as Indian people,” says Phillip Stago, a White Mountain Apache whose parents raised Herefords. Stago is commissioner of the Nahata Dzil chapter of the Navajo Nation (chapters are comparable to counties in American states).

Two years ago, in a land where most Navajo own fewer than 30 cows, Stago’s political backing helped the Navajo people launch the Padres Mesa Ranch—an experiment in self-sufficient ranching by the collective tribe. The Padres Mesa runs 450 cattle and aims to market high-quality beef to restaurants and gourmet meat companies, much the way the Nez Perce in Idaho have helped create global demand for Appaloosa horses.

Some families of other tribes in the Great Plains were able to overcome the allotment policy and disadvantageous leasing legacies to establish large ranches up north. The Whitfords are one. Their Four O Ranch in the shadows of the Rockies, just east of Glacier National Park, is where roper Ryle Whitford’s Blackfeet ancestors would travel in single file at a full gallop (the Blackfeet are an offshoot of Canada’s Blackfoot tribe, named for its traditional dark-colored moccasins). Whitford, his siblings, and his friend, Ty St. Goddard, grew up together doctoring Longhorn cattle and snubbing broncs on the mountainous “backbone of the world.”

The day I arrived at the headquarters of the Padres Mesa Ranch in eastern Arizona (formerly an old stage stop between Holbrook, Ariz., and Gallup, N.M.), I found its Navajo cowboys saddling up for a round-up. I was expected, but attempts at small talk failed. And I was taken aback when they simply handed me the reins to a Paint mare and rode away. Curiosity piqued, I mounted up and nudged the mare forward and followed them into the brisk, 45-degree morning.

Instead of the wasteland of rocks, sand, and cactus that I expected, an ancient riverbed of knee-high grass parted before the mare as we approached the fattest black cattle I’d ever seen. The landscape felt like Oregon. The four cowboys I trailed ranged in age from 20 to 50 and spoke fluent Navajo. They worked with a quiet efficiency while gathering and sorting more than 100 pairs of cattle.

“Where did you cowboy before you came here?” I asked each in turn. But they all simply shook their heads. Not even cow boss Gene Shepherd, who looked as if he were born in his sweat-stained felt hat, had ever worked on a ranch prior. Navajo families have kept sheep, cattle, and horses since the 17th century, but never on a large, commercial scale.

“My father was an old-time cowboy born in 1902,” Shepherd told me in stilted English, jingle-bobs jangling on his spurs. “My mom would tell me stories about how he broke horses.”

Shepherd’s paternal ancestors were Navajo, but his mother descended from a Hopi girl kidnapped by Navajo warriors in the 18th century. When he got the job at the Padres Mesa and the first herd of cattle arrived, he arranged for a ceremonial blessing by a traditional medicine man.

“A lot of the people I used to work with are unemployed now,” says Shepherd, a former construction worker. In light of the Navajo Nation’s 42-percent unemployment rate, many residents have had to depart their homeland to find work. Without the Padres Mesa job, the same fate awaits young Donovan Wilson, who would likely have to leave his wife and 8-month-old son behind.

If the Padres Mesa is a success, however, more tribe-owned ranches could sprout up like it on the vast expanses of nearby land. That would mean Navajo cowboys could do more than just rope and ride at home—they could actually create a viable industry.

The first Native American rodeo cowboy to break through was Jackson Sundown (Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn). A survivor of the Nez Perce Retreat of 1877 and a remarkable horseman who later lived on Montana’s Flathead Reservation, he was known for wearing brightly colored angora chaps and Western shirts. In 1916, at the old age of 53, he won the world championship in saddle-bronc riding at the Pendleton Round-Up. Four years earlier, a Blood Indian named Tom Three Persons (Mutsi-i-kitstuki) had ridden the previously unridable Cyclone at the first-ever Calgary Stampede and became the first Canadian to win the world. Of Three Person’s triumph in Calgary, a journalist wrote: “We raise our hats to these cowboys, the true sons of the West.”

While rodeo competitors were somewhat diverse in the early 20th century, by the end of WWI, white cowboys had claimed the rodeo arena, and Indians moved over to powwows and parades. But that didn’t mean they weren’t still roping and riding at home. The Navajo were the first to organize, creating the All Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association (AIRCA) in 1957. (Today’s annual International Indian Finals Rodeo in Farmington, N.M., each October is a major event.) In 1975, the Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR) was created to showcase high-ranking Native rodeo athletes from across the U.S. and Canada. Each November in Las Vegas, roughly 450 contestants representing 68 tribes compete for world championships.

“We increased membership by 10 percent this year, opened a Professional Indian Rodeo Hall of Fame, and added junior and senior competitions last year,” says INFR’s Perse Hooper.

Nonetheless, Native American rodeo athletes have always kept their eye on the mainstream sport. Three-time world champion and Hall of Fame roper Teesquantnee (“Tee”) Woolman is a Cherokee named after a chief. He still holds the record for most NFR qualifications—45. Joe Beaver is another notable roper of Cherokee descent. An eight-time world champion, he has launched a fund-raising campaign at Indian rodeos to fight diabetes similar to the “Tough Enough To Wear Pink” initiative for breast-cancer awareness. Diabetes afflicts Native Americans at nearly three times the rate of other ethnicities.

Several world champions have been of mixed ancestry, including Jim Gladstone (Blood), Tom Reeves (Sioux), and Bobby Harris (Shoshoni). Even Ty Murray’s great-grandmother was full-blooded Potawatomi. Champions who live on reservations are more revered than ever.

“There are a lot of people with a lot of expectations now,” says Whitford, who is traveling the PRCA circuit this summer with St. Goddard. “They’re calling and checking on us all the time.”

These shy but eager Blackfeet boys are getting a dose of the overwhelming pride Begay and Rogers have stirred up in the Navajo Nation. At PRCA rodeos near their homeland, the Navajo men are mobbed for autographs and given standing ovations.

“It gave me chills there for a little bit,” says Begay, who finished last year’s regular season as the best horn-roper in the world. “But it also lit a fire under me.”

At the same time, he shrugs off attempts to label him as a trailblazer.

“Navajos love roping and rodeo,” he says. “Most everybody does it out there. There are guys who rope better than me.”

Rogers adds that goat roping has really caught on.

“There are kids out there catching goats so fast it’s unbelievable,” he says. “That’s what everybody there does now—they have goat-roping events.”

America’s defending world champion dummy roper is an 11-year-old Navajo, and native women can hold their own, too. Two years ago, Kassidy Dennison, from Tohatchi, N.M., became the first Navajo to win a national high school rodeo championship. At 19, she’s already a five-time Indian Rodeo world champion and last year was a Rookie of the Year finalist for the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.

Wilson backs his horse through a gate then rattles a sorting stick and herds the calves through a very nice set of corrals to Shepherd’s waiting vaccine gun. Wilson is athletic and reminds me of rodeo legend Cody Ohl. He wears Ohl’s same fierce look, accented by a pair of steel earrings.

“Have you ever entered a rodeo?” I ask.

“No transportation,” he says. Wilson still lives in the middle of nowhere and rides horseback to visit his grandfather. He mostly stays in the ranch bunkhouse in nearby Chambers, basically a dusty trading post and café, both of which are for sale.

He swings easily off Charro (who he broke the old way, bareback) to free a calf that has wedged its leg under a fence. “Lá sín sih,” he tells Shepherd, retrieving his rope. “You missed one.”

The Native American cowboy has seldom been included in the mythology of the West. The 2003 exhibit “Native Ranching and Rodeo Life” at Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of the American Indian tried to correct that by focusing on Natives’ roles in historic Texas cattle drives and Wild West shows. David Minthorn of the LA Times wrote that the exhibit punctured “a myth about separate, mutually hostile worlds of cowboys and Indians. In reality, they converged.”

Men like Donovan Wilson aren’t Indian or cowboy—they’re Western. They belong to a generation of Native Americans whose favorite movie is Lonesome Dove and who speak their native languages. I’m touched by their pride, envious of their commitment, and inspired by their tenacity, like the hard-working Derrick Begay and cow boss Gene Shepherd, who simply delights in a full-time job breaking horses the way his grandfather did.

Community leaders, like White Mountain Apache Phillip Stago—politicians with cowboy roots, academics with common sense—can help Native people build out of the staggering poverty endemic to reservations. Change will be slow, but I’ve seen enough to know that the Code of the West is integral to Indian Country.

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