June 29 and 30, Fort Pierre. Saturday and Sunday, the picture is the same: a loose throng of young men and horses spreads along the width of the track. They’re skittish, anxious to run — and so are the horses. The crowd cheers, and in the tension and heat and noise, some of the horse bolt. Others circle and turn the wrong way. Their handlers struggle to wrestle them back into position. When the starting horn blows, the riders jump on to their horses — some slower than others, some crashing into railings — and bolt as fast as they can.
This is no Kentucky Derby. There are no shiny white gates behind an exact measured line, no orderly group start.
This is Indian Relay, the “Tour of Champions: Sioux Nation Challenge,” and it’s something the city of Fort Pierre has never seen before.
For two days in the sweltering heat, young men — and only very occasionally women — ran the Stanley County Fairgrounds track in pursuit of glory and prize money. They came from every tribe in South Dakota, and some beyond — Montana, Oregon, Washington, Canada. There were Chief Races — three riders racing a single heat, Warrior Races — riders have to mount their horses from a running start, Maiden Races — the only time women got a chance to ride, and only a single lap at that, and Youth Races — pre-teens riding ponies in a scaled-down version of the larger races.
But the event everyone was really there to see is the eponymous Relay. A team sport, consisting of a rider, a mugger and two holders, it is, as its name implies, a relay. Over a heat consisting of three laps, the riders circle the track. At the start of each lap, they dismount. The mugger catches their spent mount, the holders preps a fresh horse for them to jump on to and take off once again. It’s at these start-of-lap horse exchanges that the races are at their most chaotic — and most exciting.
“When they did the jumping, trading off on the horses… I loved it. It’s way more exciting [than Kentucky Derby-style racing],” Draper resident Linda Vevig said.
Despite watching horse races all her life, she said this was the first time she had ever seen the Relay. Like many others in attendance, she ended up preferring it over the more genteel flat track races that Fort Pierre had hosted for some 70 years prior to 2019. In fact, she said she welcomed the idea of Indian Relay replacing Derby-style flat track races in years to come.
Of course, the races were not just for the benefit of the fans. Calvin Ghost Bear, the president of the Horse Nation Indian Racing Council (HNIRC) that organized this weekend’s event, said that the Relay was a chance for Native American youth to build a sense of self and reconnect with their culture. It also didn’t hurt that they sometimes could make a bit of prize money on the side.
“This is the alternative,” Ghost Bear said on Saturday. The alternative, he said, to youth being idle or getting in trouble. Before this weekend’s relay, he had told the Capital Journal that he sometimes worried about young Native American men and women — still hounded by the legacies of institutional racism and colonialism — turning down the wrong path in life. Racing, he said, could help keep them on the straight and narrow.
It was a sentiment echoed by 20-year-old rider Tyler Cottier Grass, who won the Chief Races on both Saturday and Sunday. Grass, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, had grown up riding horses on the Pine Ridge Reservation alongside his late older brothers. Racing, he said, helped him “keep out of trouble,” and let him live up to his brothers’ legacies.
“Relaying’s just amazing,” Grass said. “It’s America’s first extreme sport. Nothing can get better than running them tough heats on a hot summer day.”
Grass rode for the “Lakota Warpath” team, and although he individually won both Chief Races, The Lakota Warpath team itself didn’t make it to the final championship relay. That final race was won by River Road Relay, a team representing the Crow Nation whose members hail from Crow Agency in Montana.
It was a chaotic heat, and River Road faced stiff competition from their Montana/Crow neighbors, the Mountain Crow Relay team. But at the height of the race, disaster struck Mountain Crow — one of their horses bolted and ran, riderless, down the track. It was an instant disqualification.
“We done pretty good,” the Mountain Crow team manager, Frances Plenty Hawk Sr., said. “That’s why I thought we were going to win championship. But God had other plans for us, I guess.”
Plenty Hawk took solace in the fact that this weekend was only the start of the season. There were more Indian Relay meets ahead, more chances for his team to prove themselves.
For his part, the River Road jockey, 22-year-old Darren Charges Strong, spoke of his team’s victory humbly. “Maybe it was just luck,” he said, “I don’t want to put anybody down.”
This he said, but in his demeanor and gait was all the swagger of an NBA star fresh from a Finals victory. You knew he won just by looking at him, and more, he knew you knew he won just by looking at him.
What was next for him?
“The world,” is all he said.
In truth, all the jockeys — all the teams — had a bit of swagger to them. At the stables after the day was done, they bantered as they cared for their horses; alternatingly trash talking and congratulating members of rival teams. The audience also found their team loyalties, cheering on their favorites and booing when they lost. The liveliness carried into the main hall of the Fairgrounds building, where people drank, bought souvenirs made by Lakota artisans, listened to discussions on issues affecting Native women’s health and safety presented by the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, and debated who had performed best in the last race.
Ghost Bear had previously described the Indian Relays organized by HNIRC as a way of “promoting and advancing the horse culture among Indian Country.”
For a town of mostly non-native residents to fill the Fairgrounds stands to bursting, for them to see this style of race for the first time and still cheer, and for Native American athletes to come in from around the continent and be celebrated for their culture on its own terms — it seems the Relays did just that.