Umatilla Express needed a strong performance to stay in its hometown race.
The Indian relay team was on the bubble heading into Thursday’s Round-Up, placing fifth out of eight teams, the top four teams moving onto the finals on Friday and Saturday.
Outfitted in purple and pink, JonMarc Skunkcap rode his horse toward the starting line. His father James Tone and his brother Jesse Tone were a part of the team that would help him transfer to the second and third horses that make Indian relay equal parts exciting and dangerous.
As the race started, Umatilla Express got some assistance going into the first turn as the rider from Cayuse Express fell off his horse.
From there, Skunkcap raced quickly and transferred cleanly. Umatilla Express finished so far ahead of the pack that he was able to take a victory lap while the other two teams finished the course, Skunkcap raising his hands in triumph.
“They train for this all year!” announcer Wayne Brooks boomed over the sound system as the racers left the field to applause.
But higher stakes means this year is different from years past.
In addition to the $17,000 purse, the Indian relay race at the Round-Up is a qualifier for the Championship of Champions race in Walla Walla next weekend. The winning team of the Round-Up relay will get its entry fee paid and coveted publicity in the racing program.
Umatilla Express owner Katherine Minthorn has been involved in trying to better organize the Round-Up’s Indian relay race since 1999. She started Umatilla Express in 2008 in a similar effort in organization.
“(Before), it was just a locally thrown together team,” she said.
This year, she worked with Calvin Ghost Bear, the president of the Horse Nations Indian Relay Council and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe in South Dakota, to accredit the Round-Up as a qualifier for the Walla Walla championship.
In its second year, Ghost Bear said the council’s goal is to promote Indian relay by creating a unifying league.
“We realize that’s it’s not easy to do,” he said.
The problem is that all of the top relay races are spread across the Northwest and Midwest. With a season that stretches from May through September, Indian relays take place in Auburn, Washington, Shakopee, Minnesota, and everywhere in between.
Ghost Bear said the council held the first Championship of Champions in Gillette, Wyoming, but realizing it was quite a haul for Northwestern tribes, the council moved the 2018 championship to Walla Walla.
For the rodeo’s part, Round-Up Competitive Events Director Nick Sirovatka said he considered the council’s effort similar to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s efforts to organize rodeo.
While Umatilla Express now has a chance to compete in a town named after one of its tribes, none of the team members actually come from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
James Tone and his sons are from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in Idaho and horse caretaker D.L. Shakespeare is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming.
Minthorn said she knew the Tones for many years and when she needed riders, she called on them to join forces with Umatilla Express. Down a horse on their team, the Tones agreed and have been racing under the Umatilla Express banner since July.
Although he and his family comes from different tribes, he thinks it’s a symbol of Native American unity that the team is comprised of different tribes.
Shakespeare was excited when he heard that the Tones would be joining Umatilla Express, pointing to the Tone family’s legendary reputation on the relay racing circuit.
Even if the team doesn’t win the finals, Minthorn said the current iteration of the Umatilla Express will race in Walla Walla to get a chance at being crowned the second champion of champions.
Contact Antonio Sierra at email@example.com or 541-966-0836