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YAKAMA INDIAN NATION

Inducted in 1997

Rodeo Parade in downtown Ellensburg, WA. (Vintage Postcard Collection)The people of the Yakama Indian Nation have lived for centuries on the Columbia Plateau of what is now central and southeastern Washington State. The Yakama were hunting and gathering people, traversing the Columbia Plateau in search of the venison, salmon, berries, and roots that were their mainstay. They developed a council form of leadership and elaborate rituals that evinced their spirituality and intimate connection with the natural world.

In the late eighteenth century, the Yakama Indians adapted horses from the Plains Indians, who had adapted them from the Spaniards. The Yakamas soon became expert horsemen, a skill that brought them great success in hunting and in warfare. After the Indian Wars of the mid-nineteenth century, many Yakama Indians made a difficult transition to reservation life. Some of them took up cattle ranching, replacing their mounted hunting and gathering lifestyle with that of the mounted cowboy culture. Horsemanship is a trait that influences Yakama culture to this day.

The Yakama Nation in general, and the Wanapum and Kittitas bands in particular, were crucial shapers of the nineteenth century history of Kittitas Valley frontier. To the Yakamas the word “Kittitas” meant a “land where there was plenty of food.” They annually trekked on horseback to the Kittitas Valley in early Fall–the season non-Indians call “Indian Summer”–to gather food and stage tribal gatherings. As late as the early 20th century, Yakama Indians continued the September horseback trek to Ellensburg, living in temporary tepee encampments around the valley, hunting and gathering food, and gathering together for rituals and ceremonies.

In the 1920s, when Kittitas Valley residents began to plan the first Ellensburg Rodeo, many believed the Yakamas should be invited to play an important role in that event. Thus in 1923, Dr. H.E. Pfenning negotiated the historic role that the Yakama people have played in the Ellensburg Rodeo to this day.

Over the past 75 years, thousands of Yakamas have taken part in the Ellensburg Rodeo. These include Chiefs Jobe Charley, George Weanito, Bert and Celia Totus, and Johnson and Alvina Menenick. Other important family names are Heemsah, Eagle Salatsee, SoHappy, Benson, Onepenny, Sampson, and Wackwack and many, many more. In 1982 the Rodeo Board honored the Onepenny, Watson, Totus, and George families for their quarter-century of annual encampments at the Indian village. Today, Rex Buck, Jr., one of the last members of the Wanapum band, organizes and conducts the activities of the Yakama Indian village. He is aided by Allen Aronica, whose family, the Nasons, are legendary Kittitas Valley Indian residents and rodeo participants.

The Yakama Indian Nation’s role in the Ellensburg Rodeo is three-fold. First, the Yakamas always encamp near the rodeo grounds, recreating a tepee village like those of their hunter/gatherer forbearers. Second, Yakama Indian cowboys compete in the rodeo itself; for seven and half decades Yakamas have demonstrated impressive horsemanship and cowboy skills in both timed and roughstock competitions. One prime example is the wild horse race, an event which always attracts top Yakama Indian bronc busting teams.

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. The Yakamas enter the rodeo arena and pass before the crowd, riding fully adorned in tribal dress. As they exit the arena near the calf roping chutes, the crowd breaks into applause. Only after this ritual does the first bronc burst out of the chute and the Ellensburg Rodeo continue. In the early days only male Indian elders–some of whom had been alive before the reservation system and during the Indian Wars–made the horseback trek down Craig’s Hill. These men were highly honored by their tribesmen and their annual ride into the Ellensburg Rodeo arena became an important ritual to them. The flame of this tradition is alive today.