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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Indian Summer

On my last pilgrimage to my hometown in Idaho, my sister and I spent an afternoon at the Eastern Idaho State Fair in Blackfoot. I anxiously waited for the Fair to begin at each August of my young life when the first zinnia was in bloom. These flowers announced the beginning of school, Indian summer and the Fair because they bloomed in the yards along the route to the main gate.

That particular day it rained off and on. Madeline and I found bleachers to hide under and rest on. When the sun was in the very middle of the sky, the Indian Relay Race began, something it had done at noon every September since 1902. We climbed to the top of a center bleacher in the main grandstand that day mostly filled with Shoshone-Bannock tribe members from the nearby Fort Hall Reservation. They had come to see their best young riders compete in the dangerous and doubtless the most exciting event at the Fair.

Because I wear my black hair long and have high cheekbones, brown eyes and olive skin I am often asked about my native heritage. Ironically I grew up near the Rez and attended school with kids from there. Being Italian hasn’t lessened my connection to these people.

This is how Native Peoples’ Magazine describes the race from the photo above:

A race team consists of four men and three horses. After a running leap to mount the horse, racers tear around a half-mile track, exchange horses on the fly, complete another lap, switch horses yet again and speed off on the final lap. It sounds simple enough, but with up to seven teams on the track there is much jockeying for position. Fairly often, a rider will leap onto a horse’s back and knock heads with the horse, resulting in a bump on the rider’s forehead or even being knocked unconscious. Team members must carry the unconscious rider off the track so he doesn’t get run over by the horses. Broken ribs are common as well.Team members who are charged with holding the horses must have great strength and courage. During a race, the horses are highly excited, straining and rearing, wanting to run, and the holder must keep the 1,000-pound animal under control and properly positioned with only a bridle and rein.

I've read that for Native Americans traditionally hair is believed to represent the wearer’s personal power, strength, stamina and its length has held great symbolic importance for men in many tribes, especially in the West. Cutting their hair was usually done in shame or grief.
So. . .
my sister and I were awestruck by the spectacle in front of our eyes; beautiful ponies and agile horsemen riding bareback in a relay. Some wore headbands, braids or ponytails. At the final lap of the relay I saw a small man leap on a black horse. His hair hung free, nearly to his waist. His arms wrapped around the horse's neck as he leaned into the track with his black hair flying straight behind him. What the article doesn’t say is how much cheering and yelling we heard. As he won the race for his team, he and his horse were a blur across the finish line. The team roared, horses neighed and scattered, dust rose. I will never forget the beautiful sight of the noonday sun bouncing off the rider’s hair as it swirled around his horse’s head.

This remembrance is from Sunday Scribbling prompted by the word 'hair.'

3 comments:

Marianne said...

Zinnias...love them. Sun loving flowers.
What a beautiful post on so many levels. Your writing has me right there, I can see and hear it all so clearly, and yes, this image will stay with me, thank you!
My oldest son, Aardron, had hair down his back in '97, he cut it all off the day my Father no longer walked this earth, he was very close to his Grandpa.

Rob Kistner said...

Wow -- what a spectacle that race sounds to be! Your description, in conjunction with the quoted article, made me want to make the trip over from Portland Oregon to see this amazing event!

September is so beautiful here in the Pacific Northwest!!

Great post! Thank you for sharing... ;)

Inland Empire Girl said...

Stunning memoir writing. I teach at a school which is on the Colville Indian Reservation. Our county fair has that same race. They call it the Pony Express. It happens every Labor Day week-end and all the native families go and watch and cheer. It is the signal summer is over. We always start school right after the fair.