Tribal baseball tradition much better documented than “suicide racing”
OMAK, Washington––Add at least two more dead horses to the mounting toll from the annual Omak Stampede Rodeo “Suicide Race,” bringing the known toll since 1983 to 25, with many more suspected but undocumented, and no record existing of injuries and deaths from the first “Suicide Race” in 1935 through 1982.
The “Suicide Race” in 2018 actually consisted of individual qualification rides down “Suicide Hill” on August 4; two elimination heats races held on August 5, four days before the Omak Stampede rodeo opened; and then four tightly bunched mass charges down the 225-foot, 60-degree hill, across the Okanogan River, and into the Omak Stampede Arena as the concluding event of each of the four days of the rodeo.
From 40 horses down to 10
Forty horses reportedly cleared preliminary veterinary examinations. Twenty-nine horses participated in the two heat races. Videos of the actual “Suicide Race” runnings showed the visible part of the field diminishing night by night from about 15 horses the first night to 10 the last night, but because of awkward camera angles it is possible that no single video shot captured the whole field at once, from front runners to stragglers.
Both horses said by witnesses to have died in 2018 were injured on August 10, 2018, during the second race before the rodeo crowd.
Images posted to social media by several different attendees showed one horse descending “Suicide Hill” with a right foreleg bent at an unnatural angle, and another horse limping into the Omak Stampede arena with an evident severe ankle injury.
“Two horses killed Friday night”
“There were two horses killed Friday night,” witness Tina Stratemeyer confirmed in a posting to the Colville Confederated Tribes page on Facebook.
In one case, Stratemeyer said, “The guy [rider] ran it in the arena on a busted front ankle. Yes, you could see the foot flopping.”
Another witness, Ardie Jones Schmitz, confirmed “Broken ankle.”
Also reported to social media by witnesses was an apparent serious injury to a bull during the rodeo events preceding the August 10, 2018 “Suicide Race.”
Shooting the messengers
Between shooting injured horses and bulls, Omak Stampede enthusiasts took turns on Facebook trying to shoot the messengers, in response to postings by ANIMALS 24-7 social media editor Beth Clifton of links to What does the Omak Suicide Race owe to a horse massacre & the KKK?
Published by ANIMALS 24-7 on the eve of the first 2018 running of the “Suicide Race,” the article reviewed the surprisingly flimsy evidence that the race has any authentic roots in traditional activities of the 12 Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, despite the vigorous embrace of the race by participants and promoters over the past 83 years.
What documentation exists of Colville Reservation residents participating in horse racing prior to the “Suicide Race” describes a four-mile cross-country endurance race, near Keller on the far side of the reservation, an event very different from the 45-second steep downhill plunge of today. The Keller race was held about two generations before furniture factory owner Claire Pentz, as volunteer Omak Stampede publicist, concocted the “Suicide Race” to try to revive the financially failing two-year-old rodeo.
The other “Suicide Race”
There is a two-mile “Suicide Race” similar to the Keller race, held annually in connection with the Fourth of July rodeo in Vale, Oregon. This race “began in 1957, when then-Vale rodeo president Shamy Johnson had a vision of having a grand race down the local butte. Inspired in part by a race in Omak, Washington,” recounted sportswriter Brandon Walton of the Ontario, Oregon Argus in 2015.
The Vale “Suicide Race” includes a steep––but not nearly as steep––descent from a nearby butte, after which the horses cross the Malheur River.
Few injuries to either horses or riders have been reported, in part because few compete: just six horse-and-rider teams in 2000, two in 2004, seven in 2005.
“The race typically sees three or four riders participate each year, but there have been years where the race has had as many as 15,” wrote Walton.
“Sucide Race” vs. baseball
The lack of documentation that there ever was a Native American “Suicide Race” resembling the Omak “Suicide Race” stands in contrast to the recently published documentation from the same time frame that the Suquamish tribe of the Kitsap Peninsula in the South Puget Sound region had already adopted baseball as their “National Pastime” by 1860 and sent a semi-pro team to Japan in 1921 that compiled an 18-3-1 record.
One way or another, even very local cultural traditions by the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries tended to leave written records of having existed.
There is quite a lot of evidence, including photographs, game accounts, and line scores in local newspapers, that the Colville tribes also played quite a lot of baseball in the same era. Colville pitcher Dave Skeels in 1910 even enjoyed a one-game stint with the Detroit Tigers.
What is not in evidence is that either Skeels or any of his teammates engaged in “Suicide Races.”
The KKK ruled Omak
What does the Omak Suicide Race owe to a horse massacre & the KKK? also pointed out the thoroughly documented reality that Omak, at the time the “Suicide Race” originated, had been politically dominated by the Ku Klux Klan for much of the preceding decade, which operated in the guise of a fraternal lodge.
The vehemently racist and anti-Catholic KKK thrived on antipathy toward the dark-skinned Colville tribes, who had been predominantly Catholic since the establishment of St. Paul’s Mission at Fort Colville in 1846.
That Colville Reservation riders were incited to compete in the Omak “Suicide Race” is a matter of record, but also a matter of record is that the “Suicide Race” was founded essentially to put money into the pockets of white men who were among the community leaders during the KKK era.
There are also hints in the official Omak “Suicide Race” history that racial segregation was practiced to some extent––until the Colville tribal encampment became in itself a tourist attraction and was integrated into the Omak Stampede rodeo events.
Says the version of the official history published by the Omak Chronicle on August 9, 2018, “Early day Stampede organizers welcomed the thought of an Indian village. Paul Maley and Doc Benson, two of the local businessmen involved in the rodeo during its early days, invited the Indians to camp at the west end of the park, across the road from their original encampment. As the encampment grew, it moved closer to the arena and then east to its present spot.”
As awareness of racial discrimination spread, including recognition that few if any Omak Stampede queens had ever been of Colville tribal descent, the Omak Chronicle history continued, “In 1964 Paul Maley thought it would be a great idea to have an Indian princess accompany the Omak Stampede Queen. Maley went to the encampment committee and, with that group’s help, selected the first Stampede Indian princess. A Stampede-selected princess traveled with Miss Omak Stampede for about a decade. Then the Colville Confederated Tribes began selecting its own royalty representatives to travel on separate schedules.”
Dead Horse Cliff
What does the Omak Suicide Race owe to a horse massacre & the KKK? finally detailed how a group of locals in 1924 stampeded as many as 80 unwanted horses off of Carpenter Cliff, less than five miles north of “Suicide Hill,” east of Riverside.
Bones marking the massacre site were discovered in 2014 by three members of the Okanogan County Historical Society and then-Omak Chronicle editor Roger Harnack.
Subsequent to 1924, Carpenter Cliff became known as Dead Horse Cliff. Setting out to learn why, Harnack and historical society Brian Evans, Barry George, and Wayne Carpenter appear to have found the real origin of the “Suicide Race,” in an incident much closer to Omak in both time and distance than the four-mile race supposedly held 40 to 50 miles earlier, 60 miles away.
None of the critics of the ANIMALS 24-7 coverage offered any documentation contradicting any aspect of the historical information we presented.
“Wild West Show” history
Indeed, the 83-year record of Colville participation in the “Suicide Race” could be said to have made it a tribal tradition, but a manufactured tradition, copied from the pageantry of “Wild West Shows.”
The “Suicide Race” originated in an era when few elders of any tribe survived to remember much from times before disease, displacement and conquest reduced the total Native American population of Washington state––and the U.S. as a whole––to barely 10% of the numbers of 200 years earlier, when Colville tribal ancestors first obtained horses.
Most of the residents of the Colville Reservation, moreover, as of 1935 belonged to tribes who before 1872 had been scattered across Washington and parts of Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia, without even a language in common, let alone traditions.
The “Suicide Race” gave the 12 Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation a “tradition” to pretend was collectively theirs and defend and cling to, but a “tradition” no more authentic, and no older, than the use of pickup trucks to make beer runs.