Rodeo City

Pendleton has built its identity around a dogged loyalty to tradition.

Thomas Leeander Moorhouse

It was only after the announcer noted that Pendleton had broken the Guinness World Record for “most horses ever in a parade,” and after the F-16s shook sixteen-thousand arena seats during a flyover, and after the clowns guffawed over the names of the champion stallions (Thunder Monkey, French Wake, Muffled Cries, Nightmare Rocket)—only then could the rodeo begin.

I had a pass to the one-hundredth annual Pendleton Round-Up in 2010, but I'm not a rodeo fan. However, I'd heard the Round-Up was like Mardi Gras in a history museum, and that sounded like an event I couldn't miss. I borrowed a tent and got a Craigslist ride east from Portland to Pendleton. Every ticket for the massive show had sold out long before the big event, and on that much-awaited rodeo day, the arena was a bewildering sea of red, white, and blue and cowboy hats. I didn't have the right boots, belt buckle, or family history to elbow my way to an empty seat, so I leaned against a metal railing that vibrated with the cheers of the crowd. The first cowboys saddled up, heading onto the grass and dirt to do the exact same thing cowboys had done every year since 1910.

Every year, the town of 17,000 pulls off an event that attracts 50,000 outsiders and brings to the area an estimated $50 million—triple the city's annual general fund. It seems like everyone in town, even the surly teens, has volunteered for the event in some capacity.

The Pendleton Round-Up is one of the biggest rodeos on the continent and the one that's most committed to not budging an inch from tradition. Sure, the organizers had to nix the stagecoach race when the town ran out of spare stagecoaches, and women are no longer given a free t-shirt if they flash the bartender at the under-the-grandstands saloon (the Let 'er Buck Room), and the rodeo's wooden arena now sports a Jumbotron. But that's pretty much the end of the newfangled stuff. The rodeo has a special exemption from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association to keep running events just the way they've been run for decades, and the town revels in repeating history to a tee the first week of every September. Repetition has become such a core part of the week-long rodeo and accompanying festivities that for the 2010 centennial event, the local newspaper's headline happily declares that the festival “Celebrates Tradition with Tradition.”

In Pendleton, tradition is an ever-present fact of life, but it's also a tool, both a commercial one aimed at tourists and a social one used to build local identity. Tradition is integral to the town's identity, which is based on the deeply held notion that Pendleton is a special place, unique from its neighbors Hermiston and Walla Walla; it's a little town with history worth loving and repeating. Nowhere is this social and financial use of tradition more apparent than in the annual Round-Up, which has stayed surprisingly the same despite transforming over the decades from one of a thousand small-town rodeos to a genuinely jaw-dropping American spectacle. Tradition is what keeps the town afloat and the rodeo astounding.

As we all spend our lives learning, though, there is no stopping time. Days roll on, years roll on, old-timers die, horses become obsolete, trains stop running, ranches become retro, kids move away to the big city, and small towns hollow out. Though Pendleton bands together to host the same picture-perfect rodeo every year, change has crept in to the city. Pendleton's population of young people is declining, and many downtown institutions have closed: the movie theaters, the shoe store, the two big banks that stand grand and empty facing each other across Main Street. Meanwhile, the economy of the nearby Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indians Reservation has grown, fueled by the construction of “the Pacific Northwest's highest-paying casino” (and golf course, museum, and cineplex), and the outer ring of the city has suburbanized over recent decades with the arrival of such chain stores as Walmart.

Peter Walters is one of the young people who's stuck around. His parents and grandparents live in Pendleton, and he's taken up the cause of restoring the Rivoli, an old movie theater downtown, which was almost demolished.

“Pendleton has struggled with balancing its tourist Western identity with its desire for modern, successful chains and a more diverse economy,” says Walters, who—speaking of a diverse economy—also runs a rock and roll camp for teens. “The chamber of commerce tagline used to be ‘The Real West!' Now it's ‘Rich tradition, fine craftsmanship, legendary reputation,' In one line, they're trying to say that good things are made here, it's hospitable, and the same things happen every year.”

Some institutions have stuck around, too, in large part because of that identity of tradition. Tourists and locals alike love to spend a few bucks at the oldest business in town, the Rainbow Cafe, whose walls are lined with one hundred years of photos of rodeo champions. Typical of the Rainbow, the bar has not turned off its flamboyant neon sign in seventy years—according to a local newspaper report, the sign doesn't even have an off switch. The aging sign is maintained by the son of the guy who installed it. That's how things work in Pendleton.

The first Pendleton Round-Up in 1910 was a rare chance for people to show off in front of each other. In those days, the roads were dusty and people had callused hands from grinding away at their long hours' work, day after day, year after year, sunrise to sunset. They paused to gather from their lonely Oregon ranches for dances, whiskey, and church. A group of young business entrepreneurs who'd caught a seat at Buffalo Bill's Wild West show proposed hosting a festival that would allow the working ranch hands to do tricks in front of a crowd, to build friendships with the local Native Americans, and to maybe make a few bucks for the city, too.

When it started, the Round-Up was not a professional venture, but an event that enshrined cowboy fun as sport. When they got bored of bulls and horses, competitors rode feisty buffalo. It was, as current Round-Up Marketing Director Randy Thomas puts it, “a wild and wooly time.”

Even then, though, the freewheeling rodeo harkened back to a noble tradition. Its first promotional materials pitched the festival as “a frontier exhibition of picturesque pastimes.” The key word of the rodeo was and remains authenticity, and the 1910 Round-Up aimed to recreate a version of the already idolized Wild West. Pendleton has repeated the act every year for 103 years, hardening those images of the past into honored tradition and creating a narrative that imbues even the most absurd acts with meaning.

As an outsider leaning over the metal railing to watch dangerous and difficult events, I found parts of the rodeo absurd: I watched a man tie a horse's genitals with a strip of leather, climb on its back, throw one hand in the air, and hold on for an arbitrary number of seconds before he was rescued by clowns. But when done in an arena, with a whole city watching, the weight of one hundred years of the same action ghosted behind him, suddenly the bizarre and arguably inhumane act had power. Instead of just being a man, some clowns, and a horse's ill-treated reproductive organs, what I witnessed was a story of a town's identity and a way of life that people for generations have looked to for values and inspiration.

As an urban atheist who's not much connected to any place as a home or any ritual as my own, all that tradition, identity, and loyalty bottled into one grandstand was intoxicating. After my first glimpse of the rodeo, I wanted to soak it all in. I wanted to see every event. I wanted to talk shop with every saddle maker. I wanted to best every cowpoke at riding the mechanical bull on Main Street. I wanted to help the volunteers with VFW Post 922 cook every pound of the 900 pounds of ham and each one of the 828 eggs they cook for Saturday's cowboy breakfast. I wanted to sing along to the “Star-Spangled Banner” in the middle of a crowd packed so tightly into the Rainbow at one in the morning that I couldn't tell which voice was my own. I wanted to be part of a culture that I didn't belong to.

The rodeo seems to have this effect on many people. Though the idea of authenticity is built on the false premise that the stories we tell about the past are objective and true, the Round-Up encourages people to let go of cynicism and collectively embrace—for one spectacular week—the belief that all Americans have a shared past worth repeating. Put race and recession behind you: at the Round-Up, tribal members and the rest of the town get along, and someone will always buy a broke man a whiskey.

Thomas puts it this way: “We did not change with the times. We keep things historic, since that's who we are. Rodeo is an exhibition of Western working lifestyle, and we get to do it in an authentic way. That's why the Pendleton Round-Up has thrived, because it's the greatest gathering of cowboys and Indians on the planet.”

Saturday night at the rodeo found me backstage at a stage show like no other, helping a stranger named Mary Lou stuff a live chicken into a suitcase. It's a gag that's performed every year during Happy Canyon, an outdoor pageant that loosely dramatizes the history of Pendleton. Roles in Happy Canyon are handed down through families rather than auditions. Backstage that night, everyone was poking fun at the blond boys who played the role of Chinese laborers, donning pyramid hats.

“We need shorter Chinamen!” joked the woman in charge of costumes. Over the years, the boys playing the roles of silent Chinese laborers wearing wide conical hats—intended to be comic relief—had outgrown the petite costumes.

I thought the pageant cast and crew would have thrown out the script, which still includes numerous awkward racist stereotypes a Round-Up founder penned ninety-eight years ago. The Happy Canyon script did change once, in a year that now lives in Round-Up infamy.

In 2001, the Round-Up director hired an outside writer, Kate Brighton, to rewrite the Happy Canyon script to make it more fun and less racist. She nixed the Chinese laborers, gave the Natives speaking parts, and cut zanier chunks of the play in favor of more accurate history. The reaction was swift and crushing.

“It was confusing to those that did the show,” explains documentary filmmaker and Umatilla tribe member Cedric Wildbill. The show is now back to using a slightly revised version of the original script, but Wildbill notes that many people who performed in the show for years quit amid the change-up. “It really didn't happen very well for them and then they tried to transition back to the old show. It's all out of sorts now.”

Wildbill started out performing in Happy Canyon as a baby on his mother's back. He grew into a role as a kid in a teepee, then an uncle offered to pass along his role as a scout, and then his other uncle offered him his role as a raider. He doesn't know who does the role now.

But he does know exactly when everything else will happen at next year's Round-Up. Wildbill can recite the schedule from memory: on Sunday, they set up teepees, the barbeque is on Wednesday, and the big parade is Friday morning. Relentless tradition is useful in this way, too. Coordinating thousands of people in a volunteer-run event could be a nightmare, but most people at the rodeo know what to do and when because it's been done the same way for one hundred years.

“You know what your role is at the Round-Up, because your family's been doing it for however long they've been doing it,” Wildbill says.

I'm part of the long caravan of cars that drive out of Pendleton as the centennial rodeo wraps. I'm heading back to a life in Portland that's full of uncertainty. I have trouble planning even a few weeks out. I'm not sure where I'll be living, who I'll be dating, where I'll be working, or what I'll be believing by this time next year.

But I know where I'll be spending every first week of September. I went back for the 101st rodeo. And the 102nd. It's become my own tradition.

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