NASON ARONICA FAMILY
Inducted in 2010
The members of the Nason and Aronica families trace their ancestry to Owhi, the great warrior Chief of the Kittitas Band of Northwest Plateau Indians. The family first came to the Kittitas Valley as hunters and gatherers, establishing encampments on the Valley’s western and eastern rims to gather Camas root and berries, fish for trout and salmon, and hunt deer and elk. In the early twentieth century, Owhi’s daughter Sienwat Owhi (known to white settlers as “Old Julie”) encamped on the site of the Ellensburg Rodeo grounds. There are photographs of Sienwat’s teepee at the foot of Craig’s Hill in the northeastern corner of the grounds (east of Wilson Creek, where horse barns stand today).
Raised near Cashmere as a Wenatchee Indian, Ida Joseph (1888-1992), Sienwat’s granddaughter, returned to her ancestral home at age 17 to marry John (“Johnny”) Sohappy Nason (1895-1937). In the early 1900s, they settled on land allotted by the federal government to Johnny’s grandfather Charlie, near the mouth of the Naneum Canyon, where the family ranch stands today. Their children were Helen, Charles, William, Minnie, John, and Joanne.
Because of close ties to the Yakama Indian Nation, the Nasons were on the forefront of Indian involvement in the 1923 creation and subsequent development of the Ellensburg Rodeo. From the beginning, Indians have played a three-fold role. First, the Yakamas always encamp near the rodeo grounds, recreating a tepee village like those of their hunter/gatherer forbearers. Second, Yakama Indian cowboys and cowgirls have competed in the rodeo. Third, and perhaps most important, the Yakamas perform the ritual which commences every Ellensburg Rodeo. The rodeo begins with Indians performing traditional dances in the arena. Then, as the announcer tells their history to the rodeo crowd, mounted Yakama horsemen ride down Craig’s Hill into and across the rodeo arena. The announcer tells of the Indians’ annual trek to the Kittitas Valley each fall as that trek is acted out by the Indians riding down Craig’s Hill; they enter the rodeo arena and pass before the crowd, riding fully adorned in tribal dress. Only after this ritual does the first bareback bronc burst out of the chute and the Ellensburg Rodeo continue.
Near the Nason ranch and Caribou Creek, Indians from the Wenatchee, Snoqualmie, Wanapum, and Kittitas bands fashioned a flat track to race their ponies, a custom that found its way into the first (1923) Ellensburg Rodeo. The Nasons participated in all of the early rodeos in the Indian encampment, performing native dances, riding in the rodeo parade and opening ritual, and performing in the night pageant, “Spirit of the West” (‘06 ERHOF Inductee).
Ida Nason rode her horse to victory in the first Ellensburg Rodeo “Squaw Race,” while husband John won the “War Bonnet Race” (these two flat track, circular racing events were named by non-Indians). Johnny Jr. (“Junior”), an early member of the Kittitas County Ropers, competed in the County Roping event. In 1929, Ida and Johnny’s daughter, Helen, was crowned Queen of the Ellensburg Rodeo; her sister Minnie served as Princess. The sisters later married the Cleveland brothers, Mose and Sleepy, members of the Colville Tribe who also raced horses.
As the twentieth century progressed, the Nason family and their descendants continued to participate in the Ellensburg Rodeo, dancing in the Indian village and rodeo arena and riding in the parade.
Following John’s death, Ida married Tony Aronica. Ida’s and Tony’s son Allen (1947- ), encamped and danced in the rodeo throughout the 1950s and 60s. In the late 1980s, Allen began work with Rex Buck, a Wanapum Band elder, and others, to coordinate the Indian Village encampment, dancing, and other Indian activities. Now an elder of his people, Allen works with the rodeo board and the Yakama Indian Nation to coordinate Indian participation in the Ellensburg Rodeo. Like his half-brother Charlie, Allen is a decorated U. S. Army combat veteran.
Local historian and ERHOF Board member Bertha Morrison grew up along the Naneum and has many memories of the Nason family. “I went to school at the Upper Naneum School with Minnie and Charlie until 7th Grade,” she recently recalled. “Their father Johnny Sr. served on the Upper Naneum School Board.” Bertha Morrison also recalled how Johnny Sr. loved to raise and train race horses: “My brother and sister rode for Johnny in the rodeo flat races,” she remembers. “The Nasons are a very important family in the history of Kittitas County,” says Morrison, herself a Pioneer Rodeo Family Inductee to ERHOF (1997).
As Ida Nason Aronica grew old, Allen joined local historians to preserve her stories and traditions; a documentary film recorded her memories growing up in the Kittitas Valley. The movie, Everything Change, has aired on PBS television. Ida died in 1992 and is buried in the family graveyard atop a sagebrush covered hill in the northeast corner of the ranch. Today, hundreds of descendants of the Chief Owhi are spread across the Pacific Northwest and American West, all with important ties to the history and traditions of the Ellensburg Rodeo.