Long before Gene Autry paid tribute to life on the range, a different shade of cowpoke was singing out where the longhorn cattle fed. In post-Civil War America, one of every four trailblazers was African-American, and these generally unsung men and women played a vital role in settling the western half of the nation. Among the most famous was Bill Pickett, and this weekend his legacy will be alive and kicking when the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo comes to town.
Now in its fifteenth year, this locally based touring rodeo (the only one in America that focuses on riders of color) pays tribute to Pickett by celebrating the bronco-busting lifestyle he helped create years ago. The roundup presents the nation's top black rodeo stars mastering their sport's horse-powered skills, from bull-riding and calf-roping to barrel-racing and bareback-riding. The BPIR's main attraction involves "bull-dogging," the steer-wrestling skill Pickett invented back in 1903.
According to historians, the idea was born when an angry Pickett, a seasoned wrangler at the time, adopted the take-down methods of cattle dogs to subdue an uncooperative cow. Pickett grabbed the bull by the horns, bit the creature's bottom lip and dragged the beast to the ground by his teeth, just like his canine co-workers did. "Bull-dogging" was born, and Pickett became a legend in rodeo circles forever. The technique (minus the lip-biting) has since become a staple of rodeos. Thanks to his invention, Pickett enjoyed a lengthy career as a rodeo star before losing his life in 1932 when a horse kicked him in the head. In 1971 he became the first African-American to be inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Pickett's modern followers include such bull-dogging aces as Bobby Harrison, Johnnie Ray McAdams and the 1997 BPIR "All-Around Cowboy" award winner, Donald Goodman. These men will compete in this year's event alongside female counterparts such as Amber Stovall and Stephanie Haynes.
Other, non-busting activities make the rodeo an all-around cultural event. The Whispers are scheduled to perform a "rodeo soul" concert following Friday night's activities, and nationally acclaimed storyteller Opalanga (who works out of Denver and has twice received the Mayor's Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts) will be recounting the oral histories of famous black settlers along the Front Range. "People of color have given a lot to the shaping of the American West," she says, "but for the most part, their stories have gone untold."
But that's not because their accomplishments weren't noteworthy, particularly here in Colorado. According to Opalanga, one important figure in the state's past was "Aunt" Clara Brown, who set up Colorado's first laundry in Central City during the town's gold rush of the 1860s. She earned greater fame as a surrogate mother, cook and nurse to the city's gold diggers, many of whom shared their take with Brown in exchange for her efforts. In the 1870s she used these monies to help found Saint John's Episcopal Church in Central City. Opalanga will portray Brown for the opening of the BPIR's Rodeo for Kids' Sake on Saturday at 10 a.m.
Passing along the histories of people such as Brown and Pickett are essential today, Opalanga says, because their stories help form cultural links for today's Westerners. "If we stand tall," she says, quoting an old African proverb, "it's because we're standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. Because of that, we understand that there's a responsibility that's charged to us all to contribute to the forward flow of life, so that those who stand on our shoulders can advance."
Do children grasp these connections? "They do, and they're fascinated," she says. "But these stories open the eyes not only of black children, but white children as well. It allows all kids a more diverse way of seeing a collective contribution to history. It pierces the veil to widen our vocabulary of history so that we can widen our vocabulary of the present and how we interact with each other today."
To illuminate this point, Opalanga tells a folk tale involving Pickett. As the legend goes, during a particularly dry period in Texas history, he was charged with rounding up the bulk of his employer's herd and driving the cattle to Dodge City, Kansas, for sale. When he finished the job, Pickett spent time around a card table, winning a $100 bill. Once back home, he gave the bill to a saloon keeper to clear an old debt. The bar owner used the money to pay her debt with the grocer, who used it to pay a debt with the funeral director, who paid a bill of his own. Eventually the bill made its way back to Pickett, as a bonus from his trail boss for his cattle-driving efforts.
"As the sun went down that night," Opalanga continues, "Bill sat by the fire and pulled out that $100 bill and held it up to the fire looking at it. He held it so close it took fire, but he just held it between his fingers until it fell into the flames. But he didn't care, because he knew when he won it that it was counterfeit, and now the bill had already done all it could do." By giving the bill to one another, she points out, Pickett and his neighbors were doing more than paying off debts in hard times. "They were passing love, and commitment, and trust, and a mutual respect for one another," she whispers. "I think that's the spirit that Pickett brought with the rodeo, going from one place to another. He reminded us of how we have to work together to survive tough times, then and now. It's a spirit we can carry with us, knowing that he walked the planet."
Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, $8-$23.50, National Western Stock Show Event Center, Denver. Call 303-373-1246 or 303-830-
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