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Washington: The Omak Stampede
[Note: This story continues our journey home from Glacier National Park in August 2010.]
Leaving the Spokane area of eastern Washington, we traveled northwest, winding along 2-lane roads to reach the small town of Omak. We were there to celebrate the annual Omak Stampede and witness the famous “Suicide Race.”
Before reaching Omak, however, we stopped at the Grand Coulee Dam—the largest irrigation, flood control and hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River:
The visitor’s center was built to resemble a large generator rotor:
The dam is touted as the “cornerstone” of the hydroelectric power system for the Pacific Northwest. During peak demand periods, it can generate at full capacity to meet the power needs of Oregon and Washington residents.
Sebastian and Genevieve had fun playing with the interactive exhibit that allowed them to crank a handle and send “electricity” to a miniature house.
The Columbia River had to be diverted while the dam was built. Divers played a critical role in installing the temporary diversion dams. One of the diving suits was on display; it was made of three layers of canvas, covered by two layers of rubber, and weighed 40 pounds--quite different than the lightweight gear that exists today! Can you find Genevieve in the photo below?
The diving helmet alone weighed 80 pounds (more than Genevieve)!
Construction of the Coulee Dam provided work to thousands of jobless families during the Depression, controlled downstream flooding, provided power to communities, and allowed farmers to have a reliable water supply.
However, the dam also had a negative impact on the Native Americans in the area. While Native Americans have lived in this area for thousands of years, the dam was not built for their benefit—instead, the focus was on helping the newly arrived homesteaders. The local tribes lost 20,000 acres of land as well as their ability to practice their cultural traditions and livelihood as fisherman. The dam blocked the migration of salmon and other fish that supplied food to the tribes living upstream, all the way into Canada.
Displaying his art at the visitor’s center was John Grant, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes.
A man of few words, he said that he was four years old when the dam construction began, so he does not remember much about what life was like before the dam.
Continuing north, we crossed the Columbia River Bridge, which was built as part of the dam project.
The steel cantilever frame is typical of 1930's design, and the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A view of the dam from the bridge:
Entering the Colville Indian Reservation:
The blue of the Columbia River contrasted with the dry golden hills:
On the reservation was the Chief Joseph Rest Area:
Some exhibits on the front of the building told the story of Chief Joseph, who was a leader of the Nez-Pierce tribe during a dark part of U.S. history.
The Nez-Pierce people had considered the northeastern corner of Oregon to be part of their homeland for thousands of years. This ownership was affirmed by the U.S. in an 1855 treaty. However, more and more European-American settlers kept encroaching upon this land, so the U.S. “renegotiated” the treaty eight years later and took away 90% of the Nez-Pierce land. Even that wasn’t enough, however; in 1877, a U.S. general ordered that the peaceful Nez-Pierce be moved from their homeland to a reservation in Idaho.
Angry about the forced relocation, a few of the young Nez-Pierce men attacked and killed several settlers. Pursued by the U.S. military, over 800 men, women, and children of the Nez-Pierce tribe fled toward Canada. After traveling 1800 miles, under grueling conditions, the band was finally surrounded by U.S. soldiers when they were only forty miles from the border. Enduring five days of freezing temperatures, canon fire, and lack of food, Chief Joseph ultimately agreed to surrender to save the rest of his people. (Some did not trust the U.S. to honor any agreements, so they fled at night into Canada.)
Chief Joseph and his band were exiled to Kansas, where they endured harsh conditions. Many died. Chief Joseph was tireless in his efforts to speak out about the ongoing injustice and seek redress through a return to their homeland. Finally, after much public pressure, the U.S. government allowed the 268 survivors to return to the Northwest in 1885, but not to their homeland. Some were sent to the Idaho reservation. Chief Joseph and others who refused to renounce their traditional religious beliefs were sent to the Colville reservation. Chief Joseph died here in 1904.
Here is a close-up of the steel memorial, sculpted by artist Smoker Marchand:
The men’s restroom door:
Continuing on, we cleared a mountain pass and slipped down into a wide valley. We could see Omak spread out across the river, with the red roof and white tipis from the Indian Encampment and Pow Wow that coincides annually with the Stampede rodeo:
The Indian Encampment is sponsored by the Colville Confederated Tribes, and has Native American dancing competitions, drumming, singing, and games.
Welcome to Omak:
Another welcome sign proclaimed that Omak was the “Home of the Pioneers”:
“Pioneers” is the name that was chosen for the high school sports teams. Since the town of Omak is right next to the Colville Indian reservation, the name seemed a bit antagonistic, especially since the European-American “pioneers” who originally arrived here were homesteaders on land that was wrongfully taken from Native American tribes. To me, the high school mascot name spoke volumes of past, if not on-going, racial tensions within the community and with the neighboring tribes.
To reach the downtown area, we crossed over the Okanogan River:
The painted fire hydrants were a special touch:
Our campground was just north of Omak, on a quiet little lake, where the kids took a dip and flew their kites.
RV parking only:
A small pier provided some jumping fun:
Sebastian with his kite:
Sebastian and Genevieve:
The kites soared with the birds:
On our first night in Omak, the campground owner provided us with directions on how to reach the perfect viewing spot for the start of the Suicide Race. This race involves riders and their horses plunging at breakneck speed down a steep hillside (hence the “suicide” terminology), swimming across the Okanogan River, and then racing a short distance to reach the finish line inside the rodeo arena.
The race began in 1935 and is one of the biggest draws of the Stampede. During the last decade, there have been protests by animal rights groups who argue that the race is cruel to the horses (and indeed, a small number of horses have died due to injuries sustained during the race).
In response, the race organizers have taken measures to make the race safer for the horses, such as covering the hillside with deep sandy soil for better traction, widening the course at the bottom of the hill to prevent a bottleneck, limiting the number of competitors, having vet checks before each race to ensure the health of each horse, imposing a pre-race “swim test” in which each horse must swim across the water without hesitating or panicking, requiring each horse to demonstrate that it can run down the hill at a steady pace without balking, imposing a minimum age of 5 to ensure that the horse’s bone structure is fully formed, setting strict rules regarding animal conditioning and practice runs, and wrapping each horse’s legs for protection.
In addition, each rider must be at least 16 years old and wear a life jacket. Both riders and horses must be drug-free (and no alcohol for the riders), and both must wear reflective tape so that they can be seen at night.
Here is Ben, just inside the gated area where the horses start the race:
We were practically the first to arrive, with our choice of any spot along the lengthy downhill slope:
We chose a place near the top, with a slanted pole brace that the kids could hang onto to keep from sliding down the hill.
The soil was deep and very loose. Our feet sunk in and were also repeatedly buried later when hoards of viewers arrived and squashed in beside us.
Here is a view of the hill, taken the next day from across the river:
Race workers, wearing pink, made sure that the crowd stayed behind the barrier:
At the river’s edge on the opposite bank, we could see the road where the horses and riders would exit the water and race ahead into the rodeo arena:
We watched the moon rise:
The crush of people above us kept expanding:
About 20 minutes before the race, the riders and their horses began coming to the top of the hill and looking down, scoping out the conditions:
The vast majority of riders were men from the Colville Confederated Tribes.
The crowd was getting antsy with anticipation. I had my camera ready, as I wanted to snap a photo as the riders raced by.
Ready, set . . .
(Ha, Ha, Ha! Those blurs are about what I saw in real life. It happened so fast!)
All the riders and horses made it down the hill without mishap, although we did hear that one rider fell off his horse upon entering the water.
Here is an artistic representation of the race, painted as a mural on a downtown Omak building:
We don’t know who won tonight’s race, which was the second of the four Suicide Races held during the Stampede. We would have seats tomorrow night in the arena, where we could see the end of the third race.
We planned to spend the whole day at the Stampede grounds the next day.
In the morning, Sebastian was looking forward to some fun!
We parked downtown and walked across the river bridge to the Stampede area.
This sign was next to the river:
On the edge of the Stampede was a large carnival.
Genevieve and Sebastian were swirled around, hoisted into the air, swung high and other things that would have left me with a pale green face.
Sebastian’s favorite ride was the spinning disc:
He emerged each time with a big smile and rosy cheeks—he obviously doesn’t have my sensitive stomach!
Genevieve and I preferred the relaxing pace of the Ferris wheel, where we were treated to a great view:
To beat the 100+°F heat, we stood under the mist sprayers, which not only cooled us down but created small rainbows near the ground:
On our short walk over to the Indian Encampment area, we passed people dressed in elaborate ceremonial outfits:
A small tipi village was set up outside of the new dance pavilion:
The red-roofed dance pavilion was built by the Colville Confederated Tribes and is the same design as the one located within the reservation.
The wood-beamed ceiling:
We arrived in time to catch the “Grand Entry” parade at the opening of the dance competition:
Sometimes the back of the costumes were even more fascinating than the front:
The police officers had prime, front row spots:
We stayed to see some of the children’s performances.
Waiting for the dancing to begin:
Getting some last-minute adjustments:
The dancers moved to rhythmic drumming and the jingling of bells:
After the dancing, Genevieve and I wandered down to the river, where we cooled off our feet:
We weren’t the only ones who had this idea:
We entered a raffle to win this 10-foot sculpture named “Spirit Horse” by Smoker Marchand, the same artist who had created the Chief Joseph Memorial sculpture:
Mr. Marchand made the horse and established the raffle to benefit his sister, Susie Marchand (under the umbrella in the above photo). She suffers from polymyositis, a degenerative muscle disease that resulted in lung-damaging pulmonary fibrosis (which may require a lung transplant in the next few years).
No, we didn’t win the horse. But Genevieve and I had some great discussions about where we would put the horse if it arrived on our doorstep. (The raffle included free delivery!)
We liked the “Lead, Don’t Follow” message on the front of calf-roper Tuf Cooper’s rig:
This evening was the much-anticipated rodeo. We had purchased our tickets before leaving home on this journey. Here is Genevieve, in the stands:
The opening ceremonies included a rider holding the American flag, a rider from the Colville Confederated Tribes, and a rider holding the Canadian flag (Omak is 50 miles from the Canadian border).
After we had been seated about 20 minutes, the man behind Ben brushed his hat against Ben’s back and showed us what he had found crawling there—a praying mantis! (Yikes!)
Where did that come from? We still have no idea.
The rodeo had all of the traditional events, including calf-roping:
(That can’t feel good to the calf!)
And bull riding. Some of the bull riders wore cowboy hats:
And some wore a more protective, hard helmet:
This bull did not want to return to his pen.
(I don’t blame him. If someone kept tightening a strap around my private area, I’d try to evade capture too.)
The star rodeo clown was J.J. Harrison, who kept the audience laughing (or groaning) with his jokes. He was also a talented rider, as he demonstrated when he put on his “big lady” tutu outfit and then zoomed around the arena:
One of the highlights of the show was a performance by Sally Bishop, of Sureshot Productions in Canada.
Ms. Bishop is a third generation trick rider, and a professional stunt performer for movies and television. Here is another trick she performed (after an amazing upside-down feat):
The grand finale for the rodeo was the Suicide Race. We enjoyed seeing the riders up-close as they made a circuit of the arena before heading across the river to the starting line.
Here is the horse that would win tonight’s race--#3:
#17 would come in second:
A large screen showed us the start of the race, as the horses dropped over the top edge of the hillside:
#3, fresh from the river, charging to victory:
We were glad to have experienced the excitement of the Omak Stampede. Before leaving tonight, the children squeezed in a last bit of fun. Sebastian took another whirl on the spinning disk, and the swinging boat rocked Genevieve high into the air.
Walking back through town, this gentleman bid us a silent “good night”:
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