For stuntman, bareback horse rider, cowboy, and Blackfeet Indian Buck Lunak, the biggest thrills are found in the righteous connection to a horse.
Buck Lunak was shot off his horse yesterday, but tonight he looks just fine.
"The big thing when you get shot off a horse is you have to look hit," he says. "You have to react and lurch back."
The falling off the horse is the easy part for Lunak.
"Well, we all know how to do that," he says. "When you get shot off, you lurch back and when the horse's head goes down, you bounce yourself off the horse's hip, hopefully far off to the side. You want to land flat on your stomach, arms out, like a belly flop," he says. "You get the wind knocked out of you but then you're good."
Lunak is a stuntman, and he's back home in Montana, on a quick break from shooting a number of projects, including Horizon, Kevin Costner's three-film Western Epic currently filming in Utah. But his experience falling from horses is much deeper than that.
Buck Lunak, member of the Blackfeet tribe, is a three-time Indian Rodeo Association Bareback Riding world champion. He grew up on the reservation in Browning, Montana, working on the ranch, riding and roping. He started breaking colts at age 10. When he turned 15, he learned to ride bucking horses for rodeo competition from his father and uncles, excellent rodeo riders and stuntmen themselves.
Lunak's strong ties to rodeo, bareback, and breaking and making horses run deep back to his ancestors. One great-grandfather was an esteemed Blackfeet chief, another was a white man who in the mid-1800s drove a hundred head of cattle from Texas to Blackfeet country.
"I'm a cowboy and Indian," he says with a smile. "I think about my ancestors a lot. I'm very proud that I am, in this day and age, a Blackfoot man making his living off a horse."
It's a living that's exciting and dangerous, glamorous and grueling, strangely modern and deeply traditional.
Falling For Work
Life as a stuntman is fairly new to Lunak, having only gone into the business full time when he retired from rodeo a couple of years ago after getting his shoulder ripped up on a bad ride. Lunak was at the end of a long and successful career and was ready for a change. He's quickly become an experienced and dependable hand at the job and credits his work to some of the best coordinators in the business: Jason Rodriguez and Jordan Warrack.
Besides the Costner project, he's been bush shooting for a number of films and television shows, including 1923, Taylor Sheridan's latest installment of the Dutton Family Saga, as well as 1883 and the big bull that sired them all, Yellowstone.
Sheridan's monster success certainly makes it a good time to be in the western stunt business. Over burgers in downtown Missoula, Lunak tells me about his latest shoot, on 1923.
"Man, I've never been a part of something like this where it seems like there's no budget and nothing is too much."
Lunak appreciates Sheridan's projects for more than just the generous budgets and plentiful work. "He includes Indians in all of his shows. He includes our point of view. And the characters are real. Some of the Indians are bad and complicated, not the usual easy cliches. He understands and tries to understand."
Buck Lunak (center) with his uncles, Dutch Lunak (left), and Scotty Aguare (right).
Lunak is only in town for the night before he has to leave for his next shoot, where he'll have to launch off an air-powered "falling" mechanical horse on rails. (When I ask him about it later he tells me he didn't get to ride the rig because his part was changed: "I was in the water instead and I got to kill the guy who came off the horse. The Indian won this time.") Despite the quick turnaround, when I have dinner with Lunak and his wife Emma, both seem quite chill and comfortable with a nomadic life.
"When Buck retired from rodeo, we thought he'd travel less," says Emma, "but it seems like it's just as much. We're used to it."
The career shift from rodeo to stuntman was something that Lunak had long foreseen as a possibility, a path blazed by his uncle, legendary stuntman Dutch Lunak. You've seen Dutch in movies like The Last of the Mohicans and The Magnificent Seven. He hunted buffalo from horseback in Dances with Wolves, and in Geronimo he was shot in the chest at full gallop. Uncle Dutch, Uncle Scotty, and his father, Jerry Lunak, showed Buck how to rodeo and how to be a man. "The were good examples and bad ones too," he says. "They were wild when they were young, which they were honest about. But their perseverance and success were a strong inspiration." The ancestors who guide Lunak's path in life go back even further than the three brothers.
In the mid-1800s Lunak's great-great-grandfather, John Hall Sr., drove a herd of cattle from Goliad, Texas (Lunak won a rodeo in the town over 130 years later) to the Milk River in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Hall stayed and married Beaver Ever, the daughter of Blackfeet war chief Sits in the Middle and granddaughter of Blackfeet war chief Mountain Chief, signers of the Treaty of 1855, called the Lame Bull treaty.
Lunak's favorite story about his great-great-grandfather is the black horse story. Mountain Chief and other Blackfeet warriors went on a raid against the Crow to steal horses. In the course of the escape with the enemy ponies, the horse Mountain Chief was riding was shot and injured. The warrior had to abandon his prized black horse in order to get away.
"It was a six months later," Lunak says, "and Mountain Chief and his band were camped in their winter camp, which is the spot where Bozeman is today. And one day in the middle of winter, that black horse loped into camp."
The extraordinary event inspired the Tribe's Black Horse Society. "Some poor Crow fixed that horse up," says Lunak, "And when the horse could, he made a break for it and found Mountain Chief. All three of my championships were on black horses. When Sits in the Middle died, he owned a thousand head of horses."
That kind of connection to horses runs through the generations of Buck's family. Three direct descendants of John Hall and Beaver Eyes are brother Dutch and Jerry Lunak and Scotty Augare, all successful rodeo cowboys.
"My dad Jerry rode bareback horses like I did," says Lunak. "He was three-time runner up at Indian Nationals but never won it."
All three brothers had a measure of rodeo success. Dutch and Scotty were saddle bronc riders who later both got into the movie business.
"My dad, Dutch, and Scotty learned earlier, and they all got sober around the same time, sometime in their mid-30s," says Lunak. By the time Buck came along, the brothers' struggles were mostly behind them, and they provided both a warning and a positive example for the boy.
"I was graced with every opportunity to be a better person," says Lunak. "I was very lucky I was raised with no drugs or alcohol around, by people who had made something of themselves."
The brothers were brutally candid about their own drinking and mistakes.
"My dad talked to me like a man, treated me like a man, and worked me like a man," says Lunak.
Lunak worked hard on the family ranch, riding and roping. He was breaking colts at 10, and at 15 he was learning bareback rodeo in the arena behind the house. "It'd always be me, my best friend Badger, my dad, and Uncle Dutch. I'd always be the first on, and my friend would open the chute. Dad would flank me, and Dutch would be pickup. But we never made the pickup man," he laughs.
Laying Hands on the Wild
One of Lunak's earliest memories is picking grass for his Shetland pony and feeding it by hand with his mother, Lynn.
"I've loved horses from such a young age," says Lunak, "but what I love most of all is to make horses. To start colts, you can't fake it. You have to connect with that horse, teach that horse to trust you, to trust humans. You can't have a bad day and be an asshole. You have to be tuned in. The whole process is righteous."
Buck Lunak on the set of The Ballad of Buster Scrugs.
Bareback riding makes Lunak feel closer to his ancestors, and there is definitely something powerful about the fear that comes with breaking horses. "It's scary, of course, but I like to conquer that fear."
It doesn't sound like Lunak does much relaxed trail riding. "Some days I like to get on a nice broke horse and go for a nice ride, but most of the time I want to touch the lightning a bit."
"When you go on that first day, trying to get your hands on them, with them thinking you're a predator, and then getting to where they trust you, where they allow you to control them ..." He pauses for a moment. "It's just mind-blowing."
Best Roper in the Family
Uncle Dutch Lunak, who now works as a Hollywood wrangler and wants to die with a thousand head of horses like Sits in the Middle, helped show Buck the way from rodeo to Hollywood. Buck knows the family reputation earned by his uncles gave him a solid start, but he's had to prove himself to excel in the business.
Lunak belongs to a group called "The Wagon Burners," an all Native American stuntman collective founded by fellow Blackfeet Danny Edmo. The idea is to create a platform to promote Native stuntmen, and make it easy for productions to find the talent they need. "A lot of times once they see what the Wagon Burners can do," says Lunak, "we end up doubling for the Caucasions as well, not just the Indian characters." Lunak's uncles could be considered the godfathers of the group. "Anyone who is a part of Wagon Burners has been helped by Dutch and Scotty," Lunak says. "They made it possible."
Buck likes the work and respects many of the other pros on set, from fellow stuntmen to big-time actors. He's not wowed by A-listers, but he did admit to getting starstruck when he met Sam Elliot. (He told me this just after he showed me a video on his phone of him getting shot off his horse next to Harrison Ford.)
Lunak has always been a man with a plan. He'd like to start a rodeo camp for kids, on the Blackfeet reservation, to provide the kind of inspiration and support that he got when he was a kid. When I ask him what else is next, he says, "I'm going to ride this movie thing as long as I can and hopefully retire and spend my time relaxing and team roping with my wife."
Buck and Emma met 11 years ago in the winter camp where Black Horse returned to Mountain Chief (aka, Bozeman), and they've been married since 2016. "She's my support system and has been with me when I've been broke, hurt, no matter what."
Buck and Emma spend summer nights in Montana team roping, and in the winter fly whenever they can to rope in Wickenburg, Arizona, "Team Roping Capital of the World." Lunak proposed in Wickenburg at the team roping center, tying the ring on Emma's saddlehorn.
Before his stunt career, Lunak figures that for 18 years straight he rode about 100 head of bucking horses a year, meaning he's been on at least 1,800 head of bucking horses. When he made an offhand quip to me about his aches and pains he quickly said he was just kidding, but then admitted that no, he's not really kidding. At age 34, he's pretty banged up. There's nothing in rodeo harder on a man than bareback riding. In front of a crowd or in front of a camera, getting thrown from a horse is a hard way to make a living, and you can't blame Lunak for already dreaming about retirement.
Buck and Emma have several horses, and they say if they were home more they'd probably have 10 or so. When I ask Lunak if he wants to die with a thousand head of horse like Sits in the Middle and Uncle Dutch, he laughs.
"Can you imagine? Hay's pretty expensive. No, not me. Just as long as I'm training and riding young horses, I'll be happy."
A BLACKFEET STUNTMAN'S GUIDE TO AWESOME HORSE MOVIES
He's a professional stuntman, Blackfeet member, and three-time Indian National Finals World Champion Bareback Rider, so he knows a thing or two about cool horsemanship in movies. Here are a few of Buck's favorites.
Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) | "My uncle did so many cool stunts in his film. One of the best scenes is when he gets shot in the chest and does a backover off the horse. Impressive."
The Rounders (1965) | "Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda are two cowboys who work for old cattlemen breaking horses. The breaking scenes are great, and the stunts in this are sick. There are some terrific horses — it's just a classic."
When Legends Die (1972) | "This one is about an Indian kid from the Rez who starts by breaking horses, and this white guy teaches him to ride broncs."
Lonesome Dove (1985) | "I'm sorry, I can't not say this movie. It's a classic. You can't see enough."
Monte Walsh (2003) | "There is an unbelievable scene where Tom Selleck is riding a bucking horse that breaks through the corral into the street and into this store. The horse jumps through the window, bucks around the store, and jumps back out again into the street and continues to buck. I don't even know how they did it; it's wild."
Photography courtesy of Chris Douglas