At the 1911 Pendleton Round-up, the Northwest Saddle Bronc Championship finals came down to a symbolic trio — legendary Nez Perce rider Jackson Sundown; the white man John Spain; and a black man named George Fletcher.A local newspaper called the contest “a racial struggle with a member of the red, white and black races to fight for supremacy.” The judges’ decision and the crowd’s reaction are an unforgettable chapter in rodeo history. The showdown inspired Ken Kesey’s final published novel, “Last Go Round: A Real Western Paperback.”
The true story of that rodeo and the three men is told in the new short and engaging book “Red White Black, a True Story of Race and Rodeo,” by Western writer Rick Steber of Prineville, Ore. (Bonanza Publishing, 196 pgs., $15). Steber is the author of 30 books about the West and winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award for Best Western Novel. He researched the story over four decades, interviewing people who saw the men ride, or whose families passed down their tales. The book includes a variety of photos.
Sundown was born in 1863, a member of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce. He was 14 when his people were ensnared in the Nez Perce War. He escaped the war’s final battle at Bear Paw on the back of a horse and was one of around 100 tribal members to find refuge in Canada.
Eventually he made his way to Lapwai where his reputation for horse riding became legendary. Sundown was said to be able to ride any horse. In one of his favorite bets he would place silver dollars between his boot soles and the stirrups. If they came loose he would pay the winner double. Most doubled down. He won every time.
He took up residence near Jacques Spur outside Culdesac and traveled to rodeos and riding competitions where he was known for wearing flamboyantly bright colors and woolly chaps. When bucking horses grew tired, he drove crowds wild by fanning them with his hat.
Sundown lives on at the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington, D.C., in the sculpture “Indian Pursuing Buffalo,” by Alexander Phimister Proctor. The highly regarded artist came to Culdesac to use Sundown as a model. When Proctor’s wife asked Sundown what he thought of the artist’s work he is quoted as saying, “If me know how goddamn long he take, me never do.”
The book is available by calling (541) 447-3115 online at www.ricksteber.com.