The Nez Perce horseman’s triumphant 1916 ride capped his rodeo career and went down in Pendleton Round-Up history.
By September of 1916, 53-year-old Jackson Sundown, with his flamboyant dress and stunning horsemanship, had made a name for himself in rodeo. But the silver saddle at the Pendleton Round-Up had eluded him. He’d come close before, but he had wound up wanting. His third-place finish in 1915 had been particularly bitter and had persuaded Sundown to quit rodeo altogether. But that’s not how the story ended.
His birth name was Waaya-Tanah-Toesits-Kahn (Earth Left by the Setting Sun). When he reluctantly accepted the reality of white men ruling his homeland on the great green hills of the Wallowa in Idaho and Oregon, the young Nez Perce warrior carefully chose a new name. He would be called Jackson Sundown. That’s what is inscribed on his long-forgotten Idaho grave, and that’s what’s in the rolls of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
The nephew of Chief Joseph, Sundown was born in 1863 while his parents were on a horse-stealing raid against a Montana tribe. Horses and riding would have been in his blood regardless. The Nez Perce were noted for their superior horsemanship and for their beautifully spotted Appaloosas. Sundown’s father gave him his first colt when the boy was 5. By the time he became a fixture on the rodeo circuit, Sundown had already defied the odds: He’d fled for his life at age 14 with Chief Joseph’s band of 800 Nez Perce after the fierce battle against the Army at White Bird Pass, been badly burned and nearly killed while sleeping in his torched tepee during the cavalry’s night ambush at the Big Hole, and suffered three gunshot wounds defending his decimated and freezing band from the charging columns of Gen. Nelson Miles. He ultimately found safety in the Canadian Sioux camp of Sitting Bull and stayed there two years, living mainly off the land in the last days of the buffalo.
Eventually he would make his way back to Nez Perce country in Idaho, but not before a two-year stay on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, a failed marriage, and the birth of two daughters. Retracing the route of his flight 23 years earlier, Sundown finally arrived back in the Wallowa country and, in 1912, on the Nez Perce Reservation, married a Nez Perce widow he’d known as a child. All the while, he’d been developing a reputation among Indian and ranching communities alike as a skilled horseman.
His first recorded ride in a public rodeo was in 1910 at Culdesac, Idaho, where he entered the bronc-riding competition on a dare, even though he was not dressed in normal rodeo cowboy regalia. He easily rode a horse that no one else had been able to stay on, did an agile standing dismount, and then casually dusted off his blue serge suit. A new door had been opened.
After his third-place ride in the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, Sundown’s rodeo appearances in the United States and Canada increased, and he soon became a top contender for world honors. In 1913, he stunned a large audience at the Spokane Fair with his ride on one of “the worst buckers ever.” It was about that time that three top white riders refused to enter a circuit rodeo because they felt they couldn’t win against Sundown. That soon became a pattern elsewhere, and rodeo promoters discouraged him from entering because they couldn’t draw other top talent to compete. However, to please his growing number of fans and still have him in their shows, they would pay Sundown $25 to $75 to make exhibition rides on the wildest and most dangerous horses. An Idaho newspaper declared, “Crowds have never seen such splendid horsemanship.”
He made the World Championship Pendleton finals in 1914 and 1915 but didn’t win. Figuring the deck was stacked too much against him, and because of his age, 52, he became bitterly discouraged and decided to never try for Pendleton again. But fate was at work. In 1914, Sundown had met two men who helped change his life. One was noted British writer Charles Wellington Furlong, who took a strong liking to the proud Indian. Wellington was making an in-depth study of the American rodeo scene and followed the circuit with the top hands for years, becoming an expert. He considered Sundown’s riding a bucking horse “a sight fit for the gods. Long braids of crow-black hair tied in front looped and wafted against the cinnamon brown cheeks of the rider; his colored shirt and kerchief flattering and billowing against his muscle-articulating torso in the movements of the wind.”
The second new friend was Alexander Phimister Proctor, then America’s most famous sculptor, who in 1900 had won the gold medal at the Paris International Exposition. Proctor was fascinated by the handsome features and bearing of Sundown and soon had him posing for various works in progress. Proctor’s many renderings of Sundown included a bust for Stanford University, a statue for the RCA building in New York City, and a heroic bareback rider called On the War Trail, now located in front of the Colorado State Capitol building. Proctor went out and lived in Sundown’s “finest tepee” at the ranch home near Culdesac and later took him to California, to model during the winter.
It was Proctor who finally talked Sundown into having one last go at the World Championship Finals in Pendleton in 1916. When Sundown agreed, Proctor paid his entry fees.
And it was on a Saturday afternoon that Jackson Sundown made the most important competitive ride of his career. It could have killed him and it didn’t win the championship, but it set him in a good position to do so.
In the preceding days, he’d fought his way into the select semifinals with the 13 top hands from across North America. Sundown felt the officials were probably conniving to keep the top prize money, the championship, and the silver mounted saddle away from him. He’d been prevented from getting these honors four times previously. For the semis, he drew an infamously wicked horse called Wiggles, and when it was time for his critical ride, he had made a daring decision.
Wiggles exploded out of the bucking chute gate to great roars from the crowd, and Sundown matched every bone-jarring jump with offsetting grace. Then when the gunshot signaled the end of the qualified ride time, the determined rider waved off the pickup men and continued to spur the bronc, rhythmically swinging his big Stetson and putting on a superlative show, staying on top of the enraged, sunfishing, twisting, and snorting horse. At first there had been cheers and some jeers from the raucous, noisy crowd; but as the contest began taking on aspects of a battle to the death, the grandstands became quiet. The lithe, athletic man and the powerful animal down in the arena were absorbing a brutal beating — and neither would give.
When it finally ended in total silence, the horse stood quivering in the middle of the arena and Sundown was bleeding from the nose and mouth. He painfully dismounted and began staggering toward the arena fence — and the cheering began. It grew in volume until it was deafening and the crow started chanting, “Sundown! Sundown! Sundown!” Many began throwing money into the arena, and the cowboys gathered it up in their hats for the embarrassed man who was now lying exhausted behind the chutes. In typical British understatement, Charles Furlong’s diary observed, “Jackson Sundown had ridden into great popularity with the crowd.”
But could he recover strength enough to do well the next day against the two superb white finalist cowboys — Rufus Rollen of Oklahoma, and Bob Hall of Pocatello, Idaho — both of whom were half his age?
The bronc Sundown drew for the finals was the same big bay Lou Minor had ridden to the championship four years earlier. On Sunday, “the greatest rider of the red race” would be the last competitor. The first two contestants put on exciting qualifying rides, but because of the violent maneuvers of their mounts, they failed to win top spurring or fanning points. They were the best around, but the horses were, too. As Sundown was preparing for his fateful ride, famed professional Lee Caldwell, a cowboy and champion on the big-time circuit, gave him some final tips.
Sundown’s mount was called Angel, and from the minute the savvy outlaw bronc made its first soaring jump from the chute, the crowd was on Sundown’s side. Furlong described what followed: “The big bay pivoted twice and then seemed to nearly reach heaven in a series of high, long jumps of the kind which have spelled defeat for many a rider.
“Sundown dug his spurs into Angel’s shoulders, stuck them into his flanks, and clamped down on the third jump. ... It was a superb figure, beautifully proportioned, narrow-waisted and riding like a centaur; his hat, bound with shimmering silken-colored kerchief, swung out and down at every leap; poised for an infinitesimal fraction of a second seemingly in midheaven.
“On he went! It seemed no man could stand the punishment, but never for a moment did those long-haired chaps pause in their roweling from withers to rump during the entire ride, nor did his big sombrero cease for a moment to fan the air. Sundown was indeed riding to win everything or lose everything, on his last throw of the dice.”
Round-Up secretary Al Fonburg recounted that “The very ground of the arena seemed to rock with the earth shaking leaps of the outlaw bronc. Sundown rode gloriously into the championship amid an ovation never before equaled. The throngs — White and Indians — cheered themselves hoarse.”
Long before the cheering, screaming, and war hoops had died, every one of the more than 10,000 assembled in the crowd knew they had just witnessed a new World Champion Cowboy.
The only full-blood American Indian to ever win a professional rodeo world championship, Sundown was an honored hero to both races that day. He asked the presentation committee to engrave his wife’s name on the coveted silver saddle.
Seven years after his wondrous and triumphant day in Pendleton, Oregon, Jackson Sundown died of pneumonia and the long-term effects of battle wounds. He was quietly buried in the Slickpoo Mission Cemetery, just miles from Culdesac near his beloved land of the Wallowa. A special dedication ceremony was eventually held with speeches by both Native American and white men while a restless Appaloosa pony stood symbolically tethered to the headstone
Behind the overgrowth at the grave today, the marker reads: “Jackson Sundown / Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn / Nez Perce / Born in Montana 1863 / Died at Jacques Spur, December 18, 1923 / At the age of 60 years / Jackson Sundown rode with Chief Joseph in 1877. He performed in many rodeos in the Northwest and Canada. In 1916 he won the World’s Championship at Pendleton and an ovation never before equaled.”
To read more about Jackson Sundown and the Pendleton Round-Up, pick up the October 2016 issue.