Holding On

A Day at the Hoopa Rodeo



8:30 a.m.

It's already hot. Despite a 3,200 acre fire in nearby Orleans, the sky is mostly clear. The Hoopa rodeo grounds are littered with red Solo cups and half-empty water bottles from last night's dance.

In the cookhouse, a fan is going. The Ladies Auxiliary, Hoopa Unit 415 is serving up breakfast: pinto beans, pancakes, ham, scrambled eggs, orange juice, fruit, coffee or tea, for $5. A bull rider brings his paint horse up to the window for a cup of coffee. Clyde Moon, a semi-retired rancher, has stopped by for breakfast before leaving to check his salmon nets. He's joined by Joseph LeMieux, a member of the tribal council.

Things have changed since the rodeo started in the 1970s, Moon and LeMieux say. There are fewer contestants than they remember from the early days. Time and gas, and money to compete, have all become obstacles. It takes cash to rodeo, hundreds of dollars for your entry fees, money that you may or may not make back in the competition. For a few years, the competition opened up to touring California Cowboys Pro-Rodeo Association contestants, but this year it's officially part of the Western States Indian Rodeo Association, all the adult competitors are tribal members, many having made the journey from neighboring states.

Moon's daughter, Merdi Lewis, takes a break from the griddle to sit down with the men. Lewis has fond memories of rodeo weekends when she was a kid, when visiting cowboys would come and stay with local families. There would be barbecues and parties. One summer, the Moons hosted famous trick rider Julie Sanchez. Now most of the out-of-towners bring their own RVs, parking behind the arena near the banks of the Trinity River.

Moon takes a final swig of coffee. He has chores to do. He and Lewis will be back later to catch up some more and to watch Karlee, Lewis' daughter, ride in the peewee barrel racing.

9:30 a.m.

Allie Hostler hitches a ride on the back of a bronc rider's paint horse from where the RVs are parked, sliding off and striding up to the cook shack, her white straw cowboy hat adorned with a bright red rose.

Along with her job writing and editing the local paper, The Two Rivers Tribune, Hostler helps run the Hoopa Riding Club and is part of the volunteer team that helps the rodeo come together each year. Her twin teenagers, Bud and Iris, compete in most of the events.

Much of the valley turns out to watch the kids' events — the mutton busting (sheep riding) and the mini-broncs (small horse bareback riding), but the competition hit a snag this year when the livestock truck broke down near Klamath Falls, then was turned back due to the Orleans fire closing part of State Route 96. There were no kids' events Friday night, to the disappointment of many.

Walking back toward her camp, dodging piles of horse pucky teeming with flies, Hostler bends occasionally to pick up trash. Around her, the younger cowboys are just beginning to get up, recovering from the previous night's party.

"Put some clothes on!" Hostler yells at a shirtless man.

"Take some clothes off!" he yells back.

LeMieux has moved to the edge of the arena to supervise a tractor smoothing out the dirt in the wake of the water tender's visit. Hostler, now moving her daughter's saddles and bridles out of the back of her trailer, describes some of the challenges to making the rodeo work. Many of the services needed to put the event on are donated but it still costs a chunk of change. The riding club raises part of the money. Hostler recently won a grant to get an ADA bathroom but the money won't come through until the grandstands are also made ADA compliant.

Things have been haphazard since the Hoopa Rodeo Association disbanded five years ago, Hostler says, but somehow it all comes together in the end. She finds her phone, checks the time and prepares to hitch up her stock trailer to her truck. If she can leave right now, she can possibly make it to Yreka and back with the sheep and mini-ponies in time for the kids' competition at 4 p.m., skirting the Orleans fire by taking an alternate route on State Route 3, a trip of more than 300 miles.

Nearby, Cheyenne Autumn sits on the tailgate of his 1968 Chevy pickup, stretching out his leg in preparation for the next ride. The Covelo cowboy has been riding broncs and bulls for 50 years, and he hopes his 9-year-old son, Weston, follows in his footsteps.

"I've broken every bone in my body," says the 68 year old. "I had a bull step on me in the [San Francisco] Cow Palace and break my back. They didn't do any X-rays on me, just told me to go home and rest. So I did. Then I got kicked in the chest in Las Vegas. Got X-rays and they said, 'Did you know your back was broken?'"

Autumn repairs old trucks in the off-season, then travels from rodeo to rodeo with Weston all summer. Sometimes he sees old friends who he has rodeoed alongside for years. Often he finds out those old friends have passed on.

If Hostler gets the mini-broncs back in time, Weston will ride bareback tonight, while Autumn will ride a full-size bronc in the INFR senior division, hoping to make time before the pair set off for Ferney, Nevada. Autumn doesn't think he'll ever retire. His body hurts, yes, but he loves it.

"I'm just like a drug addict," he says. "When I see those horses and bulls, I get that rush of adrenaline."

10:30 a.m.

Back at the cookhouse, Herman and Deb Anderson are having breakfast with their daughter Tammy. The family drove down from the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon for the weekend. Herman, a team roper, didn't get his turn in the arena until midnight on Friday. He and Deb met as kids through their fathers, who were also cowboys in the INFR circuit. Herman remembers coming down to Hoopa in the 1970s with his grandfather and 10 freshly killed buck deer for the barbecue.

Herman says he warned Deb when they got married that the rodeo circuit would mean a lot of long weekends and late nights (Deb herself was a barrel racer). Somehow they made it work. The two have been married for 44 years.

"I would tell all young couples to get a prenup," says Herman. Deb rolls her eyes. "When we got married we agreed she could be the boss for the first 25 years. But then her time was up and she didn't want to stop."

11 a.m.

Slack roping begins. The team ropers unable to compete the night before take turns in the arena, riding out in pairs to rope the horns and hind feet of yearling steers. Their accomplishments are measured in the seconds it takes to make a good catch and in the crow's nest, Mackie Begay, visiting from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, is calling the action for a small handful of people sitting in folding chairs and finishing breakfast. The arena stands are empty, but cowboys waiting their turn behind the chutes call and jeer.

Jerry Lee Lopez and his son Jayce, 6, help push the steers through the corrals to be released into the arena, bucking and lunging away from the ropes. Lopez brought the Brahma cross steers up from Oakdale for the competition. He, too, is hoping to get Jayce into the kids' games that night. When Jayce catches part of a kick from a nervy steer and starts crying his dad teases him.

"You're OK, you're OK," Lopez says, straightening Jayce's small white cowboy hat. "You caught a little kick and now you're gun-shy?"

At 12:30, the slack roping finishes and Begay breaks the bad news to the crowd: Hostler has realized she's not going to make it to Yreka and back in time. The kids' mini-bronc riding and mutton busting events have been cancelled.

"Everybody say, 'Awww,'" he says.

"Awww," the crowd replies, not without feeling.

Begay, finishing his set, reminds the crowd that if people have brought elders to watch the rodeo, they should check on them, make sure they have enough water and can make it to the bathroom.

Clyde Moon has come back from checking his (empty) nets and is sitting with Joseph LeMieux again, this time on the band platform that gets some sparse shade from the rodeo ground's lone tree. It's an invasive species — Ailanthus altissima — that some call Tree of Heaven. Near impossible to get rid of, it's sprung up all over the reservation.

"Tree of hell," jokes LeMieux.

"You can't even do anything with the wood," says Moon.

Still, with the temperatures climbing into the 90s, its shade is welcome. The men are soon joined by Rod Johnson, a local paramedic. Johnson is standing by for any injuries. One of the bull riders "got stomped on" the night before but he popped right back up. A lot of people are going to be disappointed about the kids' games, the men agree.

2 p.m.

Allie Hostler and Lindsay McCovey sit in the shade of their own pop-up tent, fresh back from taking the kids for a swim in the river. Hostler is steeling herself to send the "let-down text" to parents who signed their kids up for the mutton busting and mini bronc riding. Although Hostler has worked out an arrangement with one of the stock wranglers so the kids can ride a calf or a steer instead, some money will have to be refunded.

It costs money to rodeo. Hostler estimates her family pays at least $600 just in entry fees every summer weekend touring around the western states so Bud can ride steers and Iris can barrel race.

"I got Iris her first horse eight years ago, and I've been broke as a joke ever since," she says. "But it's the best thing I could have done."

To help support the kids' rodeo habit, Hostler's mom, Cyndi Hostler, sells breakfast sandwiches and, every Friday, drives to Arcata to get dozens of donuts from Don's Donuts, reselling them in local businesses. The Hoopa Valley has become a near food desert since Ray's Food Place closed last year due to a rat infestation.

Cyndi Hostler, a former school bus driver, says the riding club and rodeo keep the kids out of trouble.

"There's not a lot to do around here," she says.

"It's like ... a good addiction," adds her daughter. "It's a lifestyle. They have to take care of their animals in the pouring rain. It's an every day job. And the people we meet are good people."

When the Hostlers travel for rodeo, ranchers in other states take them in, feeding them and their horses.

Soon the parents begin to arrive, trying to figure out what's happening with the kids' games.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Hostler repeats, checking their names on her list and reassigning the smaller kids to a calf if they were signed up for the mutton-busting, to the steers if they were going to ride the mini-broncs. The parents are understanding but some of the kids are crestfallen.

Tiny Michael Korb, dudded up in his boots, snap-button shirt and cowboy hat, stands on the scale. He weighs 48 pounds, big enough for a calf, but he doesn't want to ride a calf. His mother signs him up anyway.

Many people come to pay only to find that their admission fees have been covered by a cousin, an aunt, a grandmother. Elderly women with spangled wallets fish for dollar bills so their grandkids can compete.

Cody Barney, president of Western States Indian Rodeo Association, puts $100 in the kitty for peewee barrel racing.

"Give money to every one of those kids," he says.

4:30 p.m.

The sun has chased onlookers to the far edge of the dance platform. A small bunch of canny grandparents have set up folding chairs where the Tree of Heaven is casting its last bit of shadow and wait with sweating sodas and plates of barbecue for the kids' games to begin. Despite the heat, the grandstands are beginning to fill. The mood is jovial, but not rowdy. There is a brush dance in town later that night, and many of the women and young girls will join members of the Yurok Tribe to dance through the night.

Allie Hostler is looking for Begay, who wasn't told that the kids' games were on after all. Coltish teen girls amble in trios and quartets, climbing into the stands and then down again. Teenage boys slouch nearby, their hair still wet from the river. The Ladies Auxiliary has been replaced in the cook shack by kids and their chaperones, slinging cheeseburgers and Sno-Cones to raise money for the tribe's recreation division. The bull rider who was stomped on the night before reappears and a group of men teases him for his "ear like a satellite dish." A pack of loose dogs wander through the gates and sniff opportunistically around the folding tables.

5:15 p.m.

There's a tap on the microphone, a whoop. Lopez, the stock transporter, is pinch-hitting in the crow's nest for Begay. Jayce sits next to him, safely up and away from the stock.

"We need someone to close the arena gate," announces Lopez, who then begins to warm up the crowd. "Where's the Rodeo Queen? Is she still putting her makeup on?"

The kids' games begin with the longhorn steers, each weighing around 600 pounds. Most of the kids fall right away, earning a smatter of "good try" applause from the audience.

"Good ride, cowboy," Lopez says after each spill, nudging the crowd to cheer for the Hoopa riders.

One steer tips and the animal and its rider somersault together, the animal rolling over the boy before he rises to a round of applause.

"He's probably too big for that steer," someone says in the stands.

A Nevada cowgirl comes off fast and hits the ground hard. She tucks and rolls. She deflects a proffered hand and pops up without help. The cowboy puts her hat back on her head and claps her on the back.

One of the first kids finding his seat in the calf chute is Michael Korb, who has gotten over his reluctance about riding a calf instead of a sheep.

"Michael wants to give a shout out to his grandma Yvette on her birthday," Lopez says. The crowd applauds.

"Come on, Bubby!" yells a family member in the stands.

The catch is pulled and Korb comes thundering out of the chute, spilling in seconds and tumbling to the ground. The calf hies away. Korb rolls over, leaps to his feet, raises his arms and flicks both hands at the crowd, eliciting a wave of laughter and applause.

Other small riders aren't as lucky, losing their seats almost immediately and having to be helped up by the attending cowboys. Many squall in surprise and pain.

Of all the calf riders, only one, 4-year-old Avery Rose, manages to make a qualifying time and holds onto the calf until it's halfway across the arena. When she finally falls she immediately begins crying but the crowd goes nuts, applauding as she's helped up by the cowboys and brought over to her waiting parents, who embrace her.

6:30 p.m.

The smaller kids, released from the tension of competition, are getting a little wild on sugar and soda. A group of boys jostle each other walking past the corrals.

"I'll toss you in with the bulls," one says to his friend.

"I'll toss you in with the bulls," his friend fires back.

"Those bulls are afraid of me," he says.

Four members of the riding club, including Iris Hostler, gallop into the arena, each waving an American flag. The girls split and merge again, riding past and circling one another in a carefully practiced choreography. Cyndi Hostler looks on proudly. They've been practicing for months, she says.

Begay is back in the crow's nest. A pre-recorded rendition of the "The Star Spangled Banner" plays over the speakers. The crowd rises to its feet. Two cowboys in the arena ride while holding their reins in one hand, their hats over their hearts with the other.

Begay makes a hard shift in tone, playing James Brown's "Living in America" as the bronc riding begins. A Nevada cowboy manages to hold on for a good chunk of time, but the judges only give him 67 of a potential 100 points, 50 for the rider and 50 based on how tough the bull or bronc is. The crowd boos the judgement.

In the stands, Avery Rose reappears with her mother and a fistful of money. Her family cheers. Her mother takes most of the cash, handing her back $10. The girl pouts.

"I'm going to hang onto this for you for later," her mom says. "You can spend that tonight on whatever you want."

Avery Rose looks uncertain, but she and her dad agree to go get a Sno-Cone.

8:15 p.m.

Bronc riding transitions to team roping, and then women's break away roping, where riders let go of the rope once they've lassoed the calf's head. Begay comments on one woman's smile. She misses her calf, but continues smiling.

"No time, too bad," says Begay.

The metal corrals are crowded with young boys when the steer wrestling starts, an event where the competitors ride alongside long horned steers then hurl themselves onto them, grabbing their horns and trying to wrestle them to the dirt. There's one nasty spill but everyone manages to walk away.

A fat yellow moon is rising above Captain John Ridge. Behind the corrals, scores of cowboys sit on their horses, each waiting their turn.

A paramedic checks in with the fallen steer wrestler, who's limping back to his camp alongside his very pregnant wife.

"No, I'm okay," he tells the paramedic. Then, turning back to his wife, "It all felt like it was going OK, right up until the end."

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

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