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Traditional heritage gallops into the present

The first time Tsuu T’ina Nation member Tonya Crowchild saw Indian relay racing was on the Niitsitapi Nation’s Kainai Reserve about five years back. Although Crowchild came from a rodeo family (one uncle was a world champion bronc rider and team roper; another, Gordon Crowchild, is in the Canadian Cowboy Hall of Fame; and her late grandfather, David Crowchild, and late uncle, Edwin Crane, each drove chuckwagons at the Calgary Stampede), she still had an intense reaction when she first saw the fast, colourful, traditional race. “I’d had no clue what relay was. (I saw) it down in Kainai (Reservation), and I was like, ‘Holy, these Indians are crazy!’

“But, you know, I grew up on a racetrack. I grew up at Calgary Stampede (one of her grandfathers had a teepee there at the former Indian Village, now Elbow River Camp). I went to the racetrack with my parents, and my uncles, and my aunties and my grandparents.”

Well, no wonder that even after decades around electrifying sports, Crowchild exclaimed when she first saw Indian relay racing (note: The Calgary Stampede is using the term Indigenous relay racing this year; Crowchild and many of the teams refer to it as Indian relay racing). It’s like foot relay racing, but in this case, the rider changing horses is a human baton.

Four teams race each other each heat, with the rider is mounted on the first horse while two other horses per team are held near the starting line. The riders, often with painted faces, mounted bareback on brightly painted horses, tear off around the track. That is thrilling!

But it gets livelier as the horses tear across the starting line again while veering towards the held horses. Then riders fly off their first mounts and leap on — bareback, remember, no stirrup to help them up — and gallop off again. This exchange happens with all teams in a small zone often simultaneously. Suffice to say, these exchanges aren’t always smooth, with horses leaping up or occasionally running off riderless. The best exchanges, however, are so quick and smooth if you sneeze, you’ll miss them.

The sport gained prominence after it was added to the North American Indigenous Games, held in Edmonton, in 2017; before that, it was practiced on a smaller scale on tracks on various First Nations, including chiefs’ races, youth races on miniature horses, and the lady warrior category. There are currently over 30 teams in Canada; 10 of them appear at this year’s Stampede.

Fast forward five years after those Kainai races and Crowchild’s a partner on the TK Farrier Services relay team, with team captain Tyson Head, based at Mistawasis First Nation, Saskatchewan. Head is a farrier (horseshoer), hence the team’s name, and manages the horses. “I handle the administrative and management stuff,” Crowchild says from her Tsuu T’ina home. “(Tyson) started young at 15 at the Saskatoon track galloping horses and got into farrier and (equine) chiropractic type stuff. So, the horses are well looked after.”

Crowchild met Head through FaceBook in May, 2019. “He said, you know, Indian relay and I said, ’It’s that crazy Indians jumping off of horses bareback and riding again.’ He started laughing. Because I come from a rodeo community, everyone has saddles.”

The team had won the first world championship (at those North American Indigenous Games in 2017) at the Enoch Nation track. Crowchild suggested they needed a fan page, and as Head and his son Kolton, who now at 22 has his own team, White Lightning Express, weren’t tech savvy, Crowchild ended up creating the first Indian relay team FaceBook page in Canada for them.

That’s but sliver of what she does as part of the team. For years she went on the road with them, helping and videoing races for their fan page until lupus slowed her down. However, that hasn’t stopped her from making sure the team’s vests are in mint condition, sewing loincloths and armbands for her team (she makes gorgeous ribbon skirts and sells them across North America on her Tonya Crowchild FaceBook page), and prepping for the Stampede.

“Well, I have to make sure we have a supplier for our horse feed, make sure we have accommodations, that our meals are lined up, so I’m looking for a caterer right now here within my nation to feed our team, because everything is costly down there (on the grounds). It’s a real expense to bring our teams there, and to look after everybody, make sure everybody has somewhere comfortable to sleep at night, that the horses are well looked after. Everything that’s needed prior to getting to Stampede is looked after.”

The Stampede will feature two relay races nightly, plus, new this year, a lady warrior race as well, with women racing their horses around the track. Crowchild says they are allowed to use saddles but most ride bareback. She figures the Stampede added this after a member of Siksika’s Old Sun team was injured last year and Logan Red Crow, the daughter of the team’s owner, filled in, showing “the Stampede guys” that woman do this sport, too.

The TK horses are thoroughbreds Head finds on racetracks or buys from and sells to chuckwagon outfits. He and Kolton are downsizing from their current herd of 15. Crowchild has some favourites. “We have our old veteran Kabrassy — he’s 20 years old, but he’s still loves what he does. Thoroughbreds love what they do. They’re born and bred to race.

“And, Sacred Mission. We got her at the track in Saskatoon. She is fast on the track. She is the most gentle horse ever. I can walk up, she let’s me hug her, pet her; she is the sweetest gentlest giant. But you get her on that track and she is a totally different horse. She fires up and she knows what she’s going to do and she gets super excited.”

The mare is now Head’s 13-year-old son Tyson Jr.’s horse. After years of relay racing miniature horses, he has been a “back holder” (holding the horses that are waiting for their turn) in the adult races this year, although his age dictates he is not allowed on the track at the Stampede; he’ll be caring for them the minute they step off the track, though.

Youth involvement is key in the sport, with Crowchild and Head bringing in many youth over the years to participate. A very important part of Indian relay is involvement, with kids looking after the horses including mixing feed, daily riding, helping the teams, and learning to race the minis.

In a country that seems to think more government involvement will solve everything, relay race teams offer an authentic unofficial grassroots youth program. “Tyson opens his house year-round. After school, he’s got kids non-stop. The kids even go to the store on their horses. It keeps our kids busy and out of trouble, away from drugs and alcohol.”

Crowchild is especially excited that TK will have their first lady warrior rider at the Stampede, Paulina Alexis (Wagiya Cizhan) of Alberta’s Alexis First Nation, who started race riding last year. Alexis appears on the hit FX series Reservoir Dogs. Jay Peeaychew from Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan and Joshua Jackson from Good Fish Lake and Saddle Lake Cree Nations are the two relay riders.

Tsuu T’ina is the only Treaty 7 member that doesn’t have a relay team. With the Nation sharing a long border with Calgary and Crowchild’s partnership with Head, that makes the TK team almost local, giving Calgarians a home team to cheer for. “I’ve been involved ever since, and now Tyson and I make decisions together. He always says that I’m co-owner because he can’t make a decision without me.

But we have fun working together, we split the costs, obviously. I have paid for half of some of (the horses). Sacred Mission was the best e-transfer I ever sent.”

Echoing warriors being knocked off their horses in battle and getting back on, before the reserves and their tracks, the sport was practiced on flat ground with tribes gathering to race each other. “Tribes would travel from all over to compete against each other. Sometimes it was for horses, sometimes it was for materialistic things because we didn’t have money back then. You know, hides, maybe it was a teepee that they were racing for.

“For as long as we’ve had horses, it’s been a thing. And showcasing our horse culture is so important to able to share something of us. It’s not just song and dance. It’s also horse culture … And showing our warrior skills on the track to non-Indigenous communities brings a whole other light to who we are and we get to share that.

Tyson Head

“And it brings out the crowds. I used to say chuckwagons always bring out the crowds. But Indian relay brings out a bigger crowd now.”

The Indigenous relay races are part of the Calgary Stampede evening show July 7 to 16. For information and tickets, go to .