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Review

A Wilder West: Rodeo in Western Canada

By Mary-Ellen Kelm

November 4, 2013

Review By J. Chamberlin

This is a book about people in small towns in the west, and the rodeos that have provided ways to negotiate their complex social, economic, and cultural relationships with each other and with the animals that are part of their ranching heritage. These rodeos celebrated the values of both individualism and community; and they represented a fusion of work and play in which horses have always been central, beginning several thousand years ago on the steppes of Asia. The legacy of this is with us well beyond rodeo, for horses are the only animal to take part with humans in the modern Olympics, which began about the same time as the rodeos that Mary-Ellen Kelm talks about; and equestrian events are the only ones where women compete on an equal footing — or seating — with men.

Kelm outlines the ways in which rodeo performed many of the dynamics of gender and race and class that shaped (or warped) western communities, and although her book is at times overloaded with postcolonial jargon, hearing Judith Butler and Homi Bhabba quoted in a book about rodeo provides its own kind of entertainment. Kelm’s account is rich with details about the community organization of rodeos in Alberta and British Columbia, which offered a welcome and affordable alternative to the large-scale extravagances of the touring wild west shows that decorated the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially in the United States where they represented a popular pantomime of frontier settlement. The Calgary Stampede (which began in 1912) was modelled after them, but it was also made up of rodeo events that were inherited from ranching, the staple economy of local (and increasingly, with the collapse of the buffalo herds) tribal communities in the Canadian west. Kelm outlines when and how rodeo became more regulated and eventually more professional, mirroring changes in other sports and requiring performers to be on the road for nearly as long as their forebears, the old-time cowboys; and she is clear that while some of the impulses behind rodeo were colonial, they were as often as not matched by values that were communal. Performers (in the first half century of rodeo) came to rodeo primarily from the ranches of the region, and included not only cowboys of British heritage but Hispanic gauchos and vaqueros from Argentina and Mexico, and well as African-Americans, who made up a quarter of the cowboys on the western plains after the American Civil War (and, incidentally, composed many of its best known songs, such as the old standard “Riding Old Paint,” the last song to be played at dances in rodeo country when I was growing up). And contrary to a myth that Kelm nicely deconstructs, many of these rodeo cowboys were in fact Indians — hardly surprising, when you think about it, since the Aboriginal peoples of the plains constituted one of the great horse cultures of the world, rivaling those of the Asian steppes and the Arabian desert. The winner of the bucking bronco competition at the first Calgary Stampede was Tom Three Persons, a Kainai (Blood) Indian of the Blackfoot confederacy; and this was only the beginning of his success, and that of many Aboriginal men and women, who also provided much of the skilled labour on ranches in those years on the prairies and in the foothills of Alberta. 

Kelm dates the beginning of institutionalized local rodeo early in the twentieth century, but the events that came to constitute rodeo were played out considerably earlier. For instance, in the spring of 1885 the biggest round-up that the Canadian west had ever seen got underway, gathering cattle from the open range just south of Calgary all the way down to the Montana border. This was the beginning of the “beef bonanza” of the 1880s, when cattle companies attracted the same kind of interest as “high tech” stocks did in the 1990s. In 1881, there were 9,000 cattle in the whole of the Northwest Territories. By 1886, there were 100,000 in the grasslands of the foothills alone; and by the turn of the twentieth century, a half million. The cowboys and Indians at that big round up, and at others that followed, would certainly have taken time to show off their skills, and to test the skill of others; rodeos, after all, were a round-up for the cowboys as well as the cattle. My grandfather (John Cowdry) was living in Fort Macleod in 1885, right at the heart of it all, and he told about regular bucking horse and calf roping competitions out on the range. By the time he became the first mayor of the newly incorporated Macleod in 1892, the competitions — not necessarily always advertised as rodeos, but including most of their events — were part of seasonal activities, with the horsemen of the Northwest Mounted Police watching on . . . and when they moved into ranching after their indenture was over, taking part.

It would have been useful to have a bit more description in the book of specific events at a typical rodeo. Among other things, it would consolidate the connection with ranching, and qualify the fashionable commentary (which Kelm, to her credit, takes up uneasily) about their supposed performance of masculinity, making it obvious that a successful rodeo cowboy has to have a gymnast’s balance and a dancer’s timing, with a sensitive and sensible understanding of animals, for rodeo performers are never as strong or as fast as the animals they ride; and when it comes to horses, seldom as smart.

The best of the rodeo cowboys were very good horsemen; and they needed good horses, bred to the conditions and challenges of the range, with the intelligence to understand what cattle were going to do before they did it, the stamina to work long hours in all kind of conditions, and a sense of balance and timing mirrored in those rodeo events. Breeding cow ponies therefore played a significant role in the business of ranching; and as rodeo came into its own, so did breeding rodeo stock. And rodeo country took pride in its best, with horses (and later, bulls) celebrated for their performances almost as much as the riders. And so when a horse named Midnight, bred in southern Alberta, became the greatest bucking horse of the day, the entire west took notice. Midnight was a horse that no one could ride . . . not even the renowned Pete Knight, who tried four times (probably chuckling over their names as he picked himself up off the ground). Kelm writes about Knight, chronicling his remarkable career and its sad end in 1937, when he was stomped on by a bronc and died at a rodeo in California. His passing was commemorated all round rodeo country . . . just as Midnight’s had been, when he died a year earlier; and both the famous rider and the infamous horse were celebrated in song and story.

The best rodeo announcers, some rodeo cowboys, and a few of those sitting around the bucking chute, make rappers sound tongue-tied, combining the nonchalant intensity of a poet with the quick wit of a comedian . . . all the while ready for a sudden turn into serious trouble, for rodeo is a dangerous workplace and playground; so I would like to have heard more of her conversations with participants in contemporary rodeo, knowing their delight in language. But the hard work and hard travelling that Kelm put into this book is its own image of the dedication to craft that is rodeo; and she opens up the story of rodeo in western Canada with insight, new information, and fascinating photographs. And when she speaks in her own voice, and gives us the voices of the people she is writing about, her book brings rodeo and western Canada to life.

A Wilder West: Rodeo in Western Canada
By Mary-Ellen Kelm 
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. 312 pp, $24.95 paper