Cowboys lined the metal chutes that released bucking horses and their riders into the arena, Miss Rodeo Montana signed autographs for fans, and coronavirus warning signs ended with "Face mask usage is of personal choice."
Most of the rodeo riders and audience at the Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede appeared to skip masks, despite public health recommendations and increasing pressure to stem the spread of COVID-19 cases spiking across Montana and much of the U.S.
"A lot of people, they're trying to get back to life as normal," said stampede competitor Dillon McPherson, from Wolf Point. "Having the rodeo is important to life as normal, or as close as it can be."
Rodeos are a summertime staple across the West, but the pandemic has presented a dilemma for cities and towns dependent on the economic and cultural boost the events give.
Some decided the risk was too great. In Wyoming, Cheyenne Frontier Days — known as "the Daddy of Them All"— was called off for the first time after 123 years. But organizers of the rodeo in Wolf Point decided to carry on, despite the initial opposition of the tribal leaders of the Fort Peck Reservation, which covers the town of 3,000.
Roosevelt County, a remote stretch of the Great Plains where Wolf Point is located, has seen relatively few COVID-19 cases — just nine of Montana's 2,200 as of Wednesday . But tribal leaders feared the stampede, the oldest professional rodeo in the state and one of the region's top annual draws, could lead to an outbreak.
In Montana, COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Native Americans, who make up roughly 7% of the state's population. At least 204 confirmed cases — 11% of the state total — are among Native Americans, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. And Native Americans make up 37% of the state's COVID deaths.
Rising caseloads in the state prompted Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday to make face masks mandatory in counties with four or more active cases.
Just days before, organizers of the rodeo said the event followed the latest county health safety recommendations.
"The virus is always going to be a concern," said Nicole Paulson, with the stampede committee. "Everyone has their own opinions, and we’ve listened. We feel like we have done every precaution we could to make this event happen safely."
Terrance Gourneau Sr., a 52-year-old member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, was among those who wanted the event canceled. He said he was worried about his 80-year-old mom who lives down the road and his first grandchild on the way.
"I have few fears, but I am scared of this virus," he said. "I'm scared that I will lose one of my children or my family. If the virus runs its course here, I'm scared of the devastation it will cause."
Not everyone shared those fears. Another Fort Peck Tribes member, 49-year-old William Ricker, said the pandemic felt far away. He'd sat in the same row for the annual stampede for most of his life, and the coronavirus wasn't going to stop that. Ricker's grandfather raised bucking horses and he himself rode in wild horse races as a younger man.
"I wait all year to come to the rodeo. It's all part of growing up in this life," Ricker said from the event's stands.
In June, the Fort Peck Tribes voted to oppose holding the rodeo this year. Tribal leaders dropped their funding for the event, prohibited their departments from participating and advised tribal members not to go.
Days before the three-day rodeo began July 9, county, tribal and stampede committee officials tried to come up with a compromise. Organizers agreed to cancel the parades and festivities that usually accompany the event — but the rodeo would go on.
State leaders have said enforcing the governor’s directives to slow the spread of the coronavirus falls to county governments. Roosevelt County Attorney Austin Knudsen, a Republican candidate for Montana attorney general, said he doesn't think it’s the county's place to block events on private land. The Wild Horse Stampede is a local chamber of commerce event on chamber property. Related Stories
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