Uncovering the nasty origins of an ugly event
OMAK, Washington––The 88th edition of the bizarre and often deadly “World Famous Suicide Race” held annually in Omak, Washington, is to conclude on August 14, 2022, as the final event of the annual Omak Stampede Rodeo.
Bizarre as is the race itself, down an extremely steep hill and across the Okanogan River, then into the rodeo arena, even more bizarre––and perplexing––is that the 12 Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation embrace as their own an event which appears to have originated with white men celebrating what they saw as the expendability of both Native Americans and horses.
Along the way, much that really was tribal tradition and was worth being proud of has been buried beneath the pile of horses killed over the years that the so-called “Suicide Race” has been held.
Omak, population 5,000, ten times what it was at incorporation in 1911, is a small city with much to hide, including a 1924 horse massacre resembling the “Suicide Race,” which might have shocked the world, had it become known, in a time of political dominance by the Ku Klux Klan, focused on repressing the Colville tribes.
Burning crosses & Dead Horse Cliff
Ironically, the notoriety of the “Suicide Race” has long helped Omak to elude having to explain a forgotten legacy of burning crosses and the name of Dead Horse Cliff, located near the Okanogan River, less than five miles north of “Suicide Hill.”
Four times at each Omak Stampede rodeo, 15 to 17 riders––mostly from the Colville Reservation––plunge their horses down “Suicide Hill” into the shallow, narrow but rocky Okanogan River.
They splash across, then gallop 500 yards––if the riders remain mounted and the horses still can run––into the $4 million Omak Stampede Area, built in 2010 with tax money raised in one of the least affluent counties in Washington.
Horses start behind the edge of the hill
“Suicide Race” winners complete the quarter-mile course within about 45 seconds after the starting gun fires.
Retrieving and evacuating the downed, injured, and sometimes dead horses and riders at times takes longer than clearing the crowd from the arena, after a long day of associated rodeo events and festivities.
The “Suicide Race” riders, who pay $300 each to enter, compete for belt buckles, a saddle, and $40,000 in prize money.
Urged into full gallop before they can actually see the hill, the horses appear to compete mostly from panicked herd instinct. By the last night all of the horses will have made the plunge several times before, but only a few appear to do it with gusto more than fear.
“Over 60 degrees steep on average”
“Suicide Hill” is anywhere from 210 to 225 feet long, according to measurements taken by various people at various times.
Old photos show that the raceway was moved about 100 yards south at some point in the early years, from one side of a since-demolished shed near the bottom of the hill to the other, but the reported variances may have most to do with the height of the Okanagan River: in drought years the river recedes, making the hill a bit longer.
Variations in the reported angle of the hill are more difficult to explain, ranging from the 54.7-degree slope the “Suicide Race” organizers claimed in 1993, to the 62 degrees most often reported.
“I measured it myself late one night under the cover of darkness and found it to be over sixty degrees steep on average,” reported former Progressive Animal Welfare Society campaign director and multi-time “Suicide Race” witness Will Anderson in his 2013 book This is Hope: Green Vegans & the New Human Ecology.
“The horses bunch up as they struggle going down this sharp, narrow decline,” Anderson wrote. “They cannot see the ground directly in front of them, often collide, fall, and somersault with flailing hooves as they roll downward, pulled by the force of gravity. Despite the quarter-mile shortness of the race, horse legs and backs break. Death follows by euthanasia. If the horses survive the cliff, they are whipped to run through the Okanogan River bed that is strewn with baseball-to-football and larger-sized boulders.
“It is here where more injuries in the near-dark occur. Horses have drowned in high water years,” continued Anderson, explaining that “these abuses are not prohibited under Washington State law,” because “the ‘Suicide Race’ falls under the exclusions for customary agricultural practices.
The $64,500 quest
“Though the commercial horse racing industry kills far more horses every year,” Anderson acknowledged, “the Omak Suicide Race has a history of killing more horses per total races run,” more even than the most controversial steeplechase events in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Anderson in 1999 accepted an award of $64,500 for alleged false arrest and loss of both a camera and the visual portion of a videotape, after he was accosted by four Okanogan sheriff’s deputies while documenting a fatal injury to a horse in August 1996.
The award included $12,500 from former Omak Stampede director Ted Huber, who allegedly threw Anderson’s cameras into the river, and $2,000 from the Omak Stampede itself.
Humane protest began by 1939
Anderson followed generations of other humane investigators and protesters in trying to end the Omak Stampede, which––except for the exemptions granted to rodeo as “customary agricultural practice”––would seem to be explicitly illegal under Washington anti-cruelty law.
“As early as 1939, the protests started,” recalled Allison Williams for Seattle Met in August 2017. Then-Washington state humane officer Glen McLeod “succeeded in canceling a mountain race in nearby Hunters,” Williams wrote, “then traveled to Omak and Keller hoping to do the same. ‘Why, even the riders call it a ‘suicide race,’ ” McLeod told The Seattle Daily Times before a similar trip in 1941.”
Warren Cox, now retired after 60 years in humane work, as executive director of the Oregon Humane Society in 1964 hired 19-year-old former rodeo cowboy Bob Hillman to investigate alleged abuses at the Pendleton Rodeo. The ensuing political fallout cost both Cox and Hillman their jobs.
Horse death log began in 1983
Nearly 20 years later, in 1983, as cofounder of the SpokAnimal Care humane society in Spokane, Cox sent both Hillman and SpokAnimal Care staff member Gail Mackie to investigate the Omak Stampede on behalf of the Washington Federation of Humane Societies, with a similar outcome. Cox and Hillman, both of whom also helped to cofound the National Animal Control Association, continued legendary careers in humane work at other organizations.
Mackie succeeded Cox as SpokAnimal chief executive and remained there for 33 years.
No one appears to have logged horse deaths during the first 48 years of the “Suicide Race,” but the tally begun by Cox, Hillman, and Mackie now stands at 23, following one fatality in 2017.
The creation myth
According to the Omak Stampede web site, the Omak Stampede rodeo and the “Suicide Race” have origins which can be traced to the 1920s, when “Hugh McShane, a white man married to a Colville Indian woman named Sadie Nee, began promoting [a Colville tribal gathering called] Salmon Days as the Keller Rodeo.
“In addition to roping and bronc and bull riding,” says the official history, “McShane encouraged the continuation of” an event “called the mountain race,” described as “a holdover from the days when Indian men proved their skill and courage on horseback by competing in daring contests. The race was a half mile, pell-mell down a nearly vertical, boulder-strewn chasm in the face of a mountain. From there the riders raced across a dry channel of the Sanpoil River and charged into the rodeo arena.”
Agreed Wall Street Journal correspondent Nick Timiraos in 2016, “The Omak race has its origins in the Indian races of the late 19th century near Keller, Washington, where riders managed a punishing four-mile endurance course in a river basin that was flooded after construction on the Grand Coulee Dam began in 1933.”
History tells a different story
Maybe, but little of that appears to have been mentioned in media accessible through online archives of historical newspapers, nor in online local histories. ANIMALS 24-7 in extensive searching found only a mention by Lillian A. Ackerman of the Center for Northwest Anthropology at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, in a 1996 Ethnographic Overview & Assessment of Federal and Tribal Lands in the Lake Roosevelt Area Concerning the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation.
Wrote Ackerman, “During the 1930s, an elderly Nespelem woman spoke of the ‘Salmon Days,’ where the Salmon Chief managed the fishery in the traditional manner, but whites as well as Indians participated in fishing. Much trade was going on within and between the two groups of people. Indian women sold pies, there was gambling among all groups, and a rodeo was included in the festivities.”
This appears to have been generations earlier than events of the 1920s and early 1930s, which as of 1933-1935 would have remained fresh in memory.
Spectator rodeo barely existed
Continues the Omak Stampede web site, “In 1933 the rodeo that became the Omak Stampede was just a dream of two Okanogan County stockmen, Leo Moomaw and Tim Bernard,” who had become involved in promoting rodeo only one year earlier. “Since the Cowboy’s Turtle Association – which evolved into the present-day Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association – was not formed until 1936, the rules [for events] were set down by the contractors, cowboys and sponsors of the rodeo.”
Indeed, rodeo as it exists today had barely been invented.
The notion of riding and roping to thrill spectators appears to have originated with William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917), who founded his touring Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1883. Except when included in wild west shows, however, such events were slow to become economically successful.
The Calgary Stampede & Ben Hur
The Calgary Stampede, widely recognized as the oldest rodeo still in existence, traces origin to an annual livestock show founded in 1886, but rodeo activities were not introduced until 1908, flopped with visitors, and failed again in 1912, and 1919, before catching on with the 1923 introduction of chuckwagon racing––which marked a sharp departure from Old West authenticity.
Having no parallel in anything ever actually done in ranching, chuckwagon racing appears to have been loosely inspired by the chariot races described in the 1880 novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by Lew Wallace.
Adapted into a stage play by Abraham Erlanger in 1895, Ben Hur toured as a traveling show until 1920. Erlanger and the Goldwyn company turned the play into the 1925 black-and-white film hit Ben Hur, featuring a chariot crash that killed several horses. Screenings of Ben Hur were frequently followed by The Calgary Stampede, the 1925 documentary that made the Stampede world famous––and infamous, and inspired entrepreneurs elsewhere, including in Omak, to try to emulate it.
Boxing, zebras, & auto racing
The Omak Stampede in 1933 and 1934 “failed to attract big crowds with boxing, trained zebras and stock car racing,” charges a Progressive Animal Welfare Society web site denouncing the “Suicide Race.”
Indeed, the first two Omak Stampedes barely even drew notice from most local media.
Then Omak furniture factory owner Claire Pentz, as volunteer Stampede publicist, introduced the “Suicide Race.”
Death put “Suicide Race” into the news
It may have become the “World Famous Suicide Race” after Associated Press on July 6, 1942 reported that, “Bev Connor of Tonasket,” a town about 10 miles north of Omak, “drowned when his horse floundered as it was swimming the river to reach the starting line. Connor, who could not swim, was swept downstream and disappeared.”
Connor is to date the only person known to have died in connection with the “Suicide Race,” but there have been other close calls.
“When two 13-year-old riders were hurt, the minimum age was set at 16. Horses had to be five years old,” wrote Okanogan County — Thumbnail History author David Wilma in 2006.
Recalled Allison Williams in her 2017 Seattle Met coverage, “In 2002, racer Naomie Peasley,” one of the first women to compete, “took a tumble so bad she fractured her skull. She recovered, but not before flatlining twice in the medic helicopter.”
Violent but obscure
Reported Nick Timiraos for the Wall Street Journal, “In its early days, racers often drank heavily before taking the plunge and carried wooden clubs to beat other jockeys and horses. Today most riders wear helmets, and [since 2004] all are required to wear life jackets.”
Despite the violence of the “Suicide Race,” it was still far from “World Famous” from 1949 to 1962, when Omak rider Alex Dick, who won for the first time in his third “Suicide Race” in 1941, won 23 times in 28 starts.
For example, reported the Walla Walla Union Bulletin on August 15, 1949, in the last sentence of a five-paragraph account of other Omak Stampede events, “Alex Dick of Omak won the ‘suicide race’ Saturday night and again Sunday.”
Dick retired in 1965 after a record of 33 wins that still stands.
“Hell’s Mountain Suicide Race”
The “Suicide Race” was, however, soon to become much better known.
Noted the Okanogan Chronicle on August 6, 1964, “Larry Lansburgh, movie producer-director, and a crew of cameramen plan to film the Omak Stampede Suicide Race as a test to determine whether the race would make a fitting climax to a film story Lansburgh hopes to do about an Appaloosa horse.”
The screen test impressed Walt Disney. The film that resulted, Run, Appaloosa, Run, debuted at the Omak Theatre in July 1966 as the second feature on a double bill with Lt. Robinson Crusoe, starring Dick Van Dyke.
Assessed the Okanogan Chronicle, “The name in the film has been changed to ‘Hell’s Mountain Suicide Race,’ but Omak is memorialized once in the dialogue and twice on the screen, though it would have been helpful if the heroine, Adele Palacios, had not stood in front of the Omak Stampede poster so much of the time. Among the longtime hometown talent, only Claire Pentz drew a speaking role, as the starter.”
Protests & boycott
From then to now, the “Suicide Race” has become ever more lucrative for the organizers and participants, despite the occasional loss of sponsors through the efforts of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and other animal advocacy organizations.
The most significant setback, recounted Allison Williams for Seattle Met, came when “in 1999 the Colville Tribes boycotted to protest a change to their camping space on the fairgrounds. The Stampede lost attendance and revenue, and the following year a deal was struck: The tribes got more control over the race organization, and the encampment got its park space.
“Pentz is irrelevant”
“In its anti–Suicide Race materials,” Williams continued, “the Progressive Animal Welfare Society airs a common criticism of the race: its authenticity. ‘Organizers currently contend that the Suicide Race has roots in Native American tradition but, in fact, an Anglo conceived the race as a publicity stunt,’ reads its statement. Detractors hang on that detail, its origins with furniture salesman Claire Pentz. To riders and trainers, though, Pentz is irrelevant, and they point to the deep roots of horse culture.
“The race wasn’t the only thing ‘created’ by a white man,” Williams explained. “The very invention of a Colville Tribes unit is recent. First came the incorporation of Washington Territory, then a series of executive orders begun by president Ulysses S. Grant that roped several tribes into three million acres between the Methow Valley and the Columbia River. Others were elbowed into the reservation, linking bands that once stretched from the dusty plains of Washington to the mountains of British Columbia.
“One chief invited a famous Indian leader, Chief Joseph, and his Nez Perce followers in 1885. With his band, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation—a patchwork assembly that had no single language or traditional commonality—reached their current 12-tribe size. Over 125 years the tribes faced what so many other American Indians did—children forced into boarding schools, languages squashed.”
The Colville Reservation was cut in half when in 1892 the U.S. federal government “forced a cheap buyback of 1.5 million acres,” Williams summarized.
This was done to accommodate the interests of Anglo gold miners and ranchers, and to establish an Anglo barrier population between the Colville tribes and related tribes in British Columbia. Still fresh in mind were the 1877 escape to Canada of the Lakota chief Sitting Bull after the Great Sioux War of 1876, and the near escape of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, after the Nez Perce War of 1877.
Chief Joseph (1840-1904), as of 1892 was still among the most influential Colville leaders. Despite his 1877 pledge that “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever,” Anglo settlers continued to fear that he might lead yet another revolt.
Ku Klux Klan
Omitted from Williams’ account and all other histories of the “Suicide Race” was the leading role of the Ku Klux Klan in enforcing Anglo control of the communities surrounding the Colville Reservation, especially in the decade preceding the debut of the “Suicide Race.”
The Colville tribes were Klan targets for two reasons.
First, and most obviously, the Colville were dark-skinned people seen by most Anglos settling in central Washington as an omnipresent cultural, economic, and sometimes military threat.
Second, except for the Nez Perce, who continued to practice their traditional religion, the Colville were predominantly Catholic, having been converted after Jesuit priests established St. Paul’s Mission near Fort Colville in 1846.
KKK took over Omak
Initially, some of the Omak community leaders resisted the Ku Klux Klan influence.
Wrote Karen West of the Methow Valley News in “When the Klan came to the Methow,” a groundbreaking exposé published on September 6, 2017, “The editor of the Omak Chronicle attended a Klan meeting uninvited and published his impressions on April 3, 1924. He listened to a lecture, but said he was not sold on the organization. He characterized [the U.S.] as forward looking, and said it ‘has never backed up to take on the discarded robes of the by-gone dark ages.’
“However,” West continued, “the same issue contained someone else’s coverage of the meeting. The writer called the lecture ‘eloquent’ and ‘designed to give his audience the impression that the Klan was among the truly better class societies of our nation and that their aims and objects were all of the highest moral, religious and patriotic character.’ That story reported that many applications for membership were turned in and predicted that more would follow.”
“Blazing cross on an Omak hillside”
By October 1924 a “large class” of prospective Klu Klux Klan members flocked to a “K.K.K. provisional lodge” meeting in Omak, led by the “Twisp Provisional Klan,” headquartered in the nearby town of Twisp.
“As many as 80 robed men gathered in the Twisp Fraternal Hall in April 1925 as the Twisp Provisional Lodge Ku Klux Klan was granted its national charter,” recounted West. “In late August of 1925, the Omak Chronicle published a story that said the local chapter had entertained an official from Klan headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. The occasion was celebrated with a blazing cross on an Omak hillside.”
Wrote Omak resident Patrick J. Finegan, a Catholic, to his sister Marie, in a December 1925 letter preserved by the Okanogan County Historical Society: “We have a couple of elections coming off tomorrow which are causing quite a little commotion. The outgoing Mayor is being opposed by the Ku Klux Klan because his wife is a Catholic, and one of the retiring Councilmen is also being opposed. He refused to join the Klan.”
KKK still in town
Finegan recalled a second cross-burning in Omak during 1925. Cross-burnings were also staged “in Omak in May 1927 and March 1928, according to news accounts,” reported West.
Ku Klux Klan activity faded from view as the “Roaring Twenties” gave way in 1929 to the Great Depression and the “Dirty Thirties.” Tensions between the Colville tribes and the largely Anglo communities surrounding the reservation might have eased somewhat.
Yet Omak, Twisp, et al were still populated, when the Omak Stampede and “Suicide Race” debuted, by most of the same people who had welcomed and celebrated the KKK between five and ten years earlier.
And the Ku Klux Klan never actually vanished. Alleged KKK vandalism of a Colville tribal fishing vessel was reported as recently as July 14, 2015.
Even more recently, in 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified an alleged Klan front operating as a “Christian Identity” church in the town of Colville.
Why were Colville riders recruited?
That the local business people who promoted the “Suicide Race” attracted many Colville tribe entrants, then and ever afterward, is a matter of record.
What is not recorded is whether the Colville riders were invited to participate as a genuine gesture of reconciliation, as the Omak myth-makers would have it, or simply because Claire Pentz and associates thought people would pay good money to watch Native Americans break their necks?
The immediate inspiration for the “Suicide Race,” meanwhile, was likely not the four-mile Native American cross-country horse races held circa 40-50 years earlier during Salmon Days festivities at Keller, on the far side of the Colville Reservation, but rather the Dead Horse Cliff episode of 1924, just north of Omak and east of the village of Riverside.
From “mustangers” to massacre
Wild horses had been gathered and driven to slaughter by local “mustangers,” both Anglo and Colville, at least since 1877, when Okanogan County wrangler Jonathan Rinehaut and Cayuse Brown of Walla Walla drove 1,100 horses through Omak to Alberta, Canada, but––though the horse slaughter industry had grown since then with the popularity of feeding horsemeat to dogs––selling horses was not the goal in 1924.
Wrote then-Omak Chronicle editor Roger Harnack on June 23, 2014, “Historical accounts tell us Tunk Valley homesteaders rounded up about 80 horses and stampeded them off a several-hundred-foot cliff. The story goes that the horses were eating up all the foliage, food the homesteaders needed for their livestock. So, several got together in 1924, agreed to a secret pact, rounded up the horses and stampeded them over a cliff near the top of the canyon, which at the time was called Carpenter Canyon.
Bones hanging in trees
“The event would have remained secret, if it hadn’t been for a hunter who happened upon the slaughter,” Harnack continued. “For years, the location was never pinpointed in historical records, even though several longtime residents had visited the site and reported finding the killing field. Some reported seeing bones hanging in the trees at the bottom of the cliff,” which became known as Dead Horse Cliff.
“In April 2014,” Harnack added, “I joined a group of Okanogan County Historical Society researchers interested in finding the site. It took two attempts, but we successfully pinpointed the location,” where hundreds of horse bones littered the base of the cliff, “and marked it for the annals of history.”
Harnack did not disclose the names of the wranglers who stampeded the horses off the cliff, if indeed he knew any of them, but given the proximity of place and time, it is difficult to imagine that this was not the first “Suicide Race,” lacking only the riders, vendors, and crowds of the Omak Stampede rodeo.