Behind the teepee at the Indian relay races

The World Championship Indian Relay Race is the kick-off event of the Sheridan-Wyo-Rodeo (The WYO). This explosive event has launched every WYO Rodeo performance since 1997. The thrills it provides never fails to prime the pumps of the rodeo crowd and set the stage for a great rodeo performance.

Since the inception of the event, Roger St. Clair has been the The WYO director in charge — the one who works behind the scenes to make it all happen. He started from scratch and remembers that it wasn’t easy, especially in the first year when they had to decide where to start the race and make the two relay exchanges.

In the end, St. Clair decided that a white boundary line should be placed in the arena some distance out from the elevated grandstand so the people in the top seats would have a good view of the action. The rule was that the rider could dismount anywhere he wanted but he must mount on the other side of the white line. A penalty was assessed for infractions.

This ruling wasn’t popular with the Indians and caused a vigorous discussion. St. Clair found himself surrounded by about 80 angry Indians in the middle of the arena. But Shawn Real Bird, a Crow Indian and co-chairman of the Indian events, came to the rescue.
Suddenly he called for a prayer and all the Indians bowed their heads. St. Clair high-tailed it out of the arena. The white line is still in use today.

In another year, an Indian once again rode to the rescue and diffused a tense situation. The occasion was a calcutta auction where the relay teams were sold to the highest bidders; then, depending on race results, successful bidders shared in the auction pool. The venue was the cocktail bar at the Holiday Inn. There was an unexpected twist when the bar staff refused the Indian riders entry because most were underage youths in their mid-teens. It was a standoff between the staff, the Indians and the organizers. To make matters worse, a tableful of Texas steer ropers, already well primed, fueled the situation with hoots and catcalls and other unhelpful taunts.

As the tension rose the American Legion 7th Calvary Drum and Bugle Corp suddenly burst upon the scene playing their famous regimental march “Garryowen.” This encouraged the well-oiled Texans even more. When the last note of the song had sounded the master of ceremonies, Lanny Real Bird, a Crow Indian, stood up and said: “Ladies and Gentlemen. The 7th Cavalry Drum and Bugle Corps. More famous for losing than winning!”

Everyone roared with laughter. The tension was broken and the calcutta proceeded.

Even though the relay races are hugely entertaining and provide fodder for many interesting stories, they are very serious business for the Indians.

The inter and intra tribal rivalry is fierce. Bragging rights, self-esteem and pride are at stake. The prize money is considerable ($30,000 added money plus prizes in 2012). The competition is fierce. One year, St. Clair learned firsthand about the importance that the Indians attach to the event.

Before the races he noticed a young Indian rider leaning over with on his hands and knees. He was puking. St. Clair supposed he was sick. After the race, St. Clair asked the rider if he was okay. It turned out he had simply suffered a serious case of pre-race jitters because the race meant so much to him. Now he had just won a race and qualified for the championship! It was a game changer for him. He was so proud; now he could go to the tribal counsel and tell his story. It was a rite of passage, maybe akin to achieving warrior status. It was a very big deal.

Unquestionably, the World Championship Indian Relay Race is important to the Sheridan community and The WYO rodeo fans. It is especially important to the Indians who participate. It is a unique heritage to be protected and nurtured.

St. Clair has done that for 16 years. He retired from The WYO Board last year after 20 years of service and reverted to emeritus status. He was succeeded on the Board by Shane Winkler, who assisted St. Clair with the relay races since 2002. With that experience under his belt, and an appreciation for the challenging nuances that arise in this event, Winkler is well qualified to assume St. Clair’s role with the races. Good luck, Shane.
And, thanks Roger.

Tom Ringley was re-elected as a county commissioner in 2012. He is the author of four books. Ringley grew up in Sheridan and returned home in 1990 after 27 years as an Air Force office. He has been involved with the local hospital foundation, the Sheridan-Wyo-Rodeo and has been the facilities director at the county fairgrounds.


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