Pendleton is famous world-wide for its iconic Round-Up, held the second week of September each year since 1910. Every year, a group of local beauties is chosen by the Round-Up Association to act as local royalty, with a queen and her court of princesses serving as ambassadors for the rodeo. For the first 25 years, the Round-Up court was chosen from the daughters of socially prominent families in the Pendleton area. But in 1926, Pendleton’s original inhabitants were brought to the fore when a Cayuse Indian was named to head the Round-Up court for the first time.
Esther Motanic, the daughter of famous Indian athlete Parsons Motanic, was chosen to represent the Pendleton Round-Up for the 1926 rodeo. An enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, her heritage included Nez Perce, Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla ancestry. An intelligent and talented young woman, Esther was also the first Native American to graduate from Pendleton High School.
Motanic moved to Arizona after graduation to work for the U.S. Indian Service, teaching in government schools on the Navajo reservation in Valentine, Ariz. She returned to Pendleton each September for the annual Round-Up, and in 1924 was the winner of the annual American Indian Beauty Contest.
A newspaper article in the Aug. 17, 1926 East Oregonian described Esther as a rare beauty with high intelligence. “Well educated, a brilliant conversationalist and writer, this maid attracts attention wherever she goes. She is a much-besought guest of her white sisters, and is as much at home in their drawing rooms as she is among the teepees of her own people.” She was also a talented mezzo-soprano and violinist, performing in churches wherever she lived.
And while she had suitors from tribes throughout the region, she chose Glenn Lewis, whom she met in Arizona, as her husband. They married in 1927 and had four children. Esther and Glenn moved from reservation to reservation during their marriage, including stays in Montana, South Dakota and Newberg, Ore. After Glenn’s death in 1971, Esther returned home to Mission. She died in 1988 at the age of 87.
In 2013, Esther Motanic’s contribution to Pendleton history was memorialized with a bronze statue placed on the Pendleton Bronze Trail, located on a traffic island at the eastern approach to downtown Pendleton near Til Taylor Park on Southeast Court Avenue.