In the world of professional cowboys, some wins are more important than a paycheck.
A quarter of a century has passed since Jeremy Meeks’ dad stopped pointedly ignoring his 10-year-old son who’d been climbing on all of the half-grown cattle he could corner on their South Dakota ranch. On that day, the old bronc rider dropped his saddle next to the wildish ponies he’d penned in the round corral and called the youngster over. The younger Meeks (Lakota), now a veteran cowboy, remembers that moment as the first exciting step on a path that would be both rocky and wonderful.
It’s not easy for a Native cowboy in the world of professional rodeo. In 1979, the late, great Lakota champion, Howard Hunter said, “We have to go twice as far, be twice as good for three times as long before the judges will even look at us.”
Not much has changed.
It isn’t just talent that puts successful bronc riders in the spotlight. There are politics in rodeo, and it’s a judged event. Success is dependent on the opinions of two men, and the sad fact for indigenous people is that racism is alive and well.
Unlike other professional sports, rodeo contestants aren’t paid unless they win. They buy their expensive membership cards that are passports to entering rodeos, then pay for fuel, lodging, and chow. It’s tough to convince an employer to grant time off to chase their dreams especially when those dreams frequently result in serious time-off injury.
In 2012, the rodeo trail proved it’s not just big, wicked bucking horses that a bronc rider needs fear, it’s the road itself. Austin Janis was a rising bareback riding star who traveled with Meeks, sharing expenses and driving the long miles in between rodeos. The two were heading back home to South Dakota from Odessa, Texas, when an oncoming car crossed the center line and hit them head on.
“I held Austin in my arms and talked to him, asking him to stay with me,” Meeks recalls. “I kept him with me until I couldn’t keep him anymore. I’m glad I was with him that night. Glad it was just the two of us and my other traveling partner, Kaden Deal, wasn’t there. My arms might have held two dying friends.”
For a year after that, Meeks’ life was turned upside down. As all of the people in Indian Country prayed for him, he found his way back a changed man. Although alcohol played no part in the fatal accident, Meeks walked away from it completely. His wife, Jaymie, stuck with him through that time of transition. He credits her with his survival, says she was his rock when he was lost in grief and doubt. The family is fine today. They just moved onto their own ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation with their two boys, 10-year-old Traden and 2-year-old Hazen.
To this day, travel is hard for him. The lonely windshield time conjures up unsettling memories of his lost friend. If not for the allure of riding the great horses, he’d never stray far from the ranch at Scenic, South Dakota. Part of why he still goes is the serious business of mentoring kids not just on his reservation but all across North America. Famous role models are scarce on the rez, but the remnants of the great horse cultures are strong. So are the people who work tirelessly to reconnect Native youth with their ancient languages, values, ethics, spirituality, and strong sense of community.
Meeks carries the weight of nations on his broad shoulders and the vivid memory of Austin Janis, whom he talks to before every ride. His qualification for RFD-TV’s The American semifinals came with winning the Indian National Finals Rodeo Saddle Bronc Riding World Championship last winter. His expenses for the journey were covered by the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation, but his success in qualifying for The American finals was earned by riding tough in Fort Worth, Texas, just the weekend before.
“It’s not every day that I get the opportunity to ride the best horses in the world,” he said. “The guys I had the privilege of competing with are used to that caliber of horse.”
The great Texas horse Tip Off would prove himself the victor on that Sunday at AT&T Stadium, but Meeks walked away a winner just the same. His presence and huge effort will echo across Indian Country for a long time, inspiring many kids to stay away from substance pitfalls and follow in Meeks’ big footsteps.
He’ll see to that. It’s his mission.