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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Round-Up role troubles some Indians

By Joseph B. Frazier
The Associated Press

MISSION, Ore. Legend here says that back before time, or maybe a little later, Coyote, the revered and ubiquitous spiritual gadfly of the high-plateau tribes, spelled it all out for them:

"White people with hair on their faces will come from the rising sun. You people must be careful."

The white people came, the tribes weren't careful until it was too late, and the rest is their tragic history.

How that history is portrayed at the Pendleton Round-Up a few miles west of here each September raises a few eyebrows on the nearby Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Many whose families have erected their tepees at the Round-Up's Indian village and volunteered in the Happy Canyon Western pageant for generations see it as a cultural statement, an assertion of their identity and a chance to hobnob with friends and relatives they haven't seen all year.

They get a small honorarium for putting up their tepees, taking part in Happy Canyon or riding a horse in their parts of the rodeo. It's enough to send the kids to the carnival or buy a couple of hamburgers. The adults come for other reasons.

"We go to celebrate, to visit a lot of our relatives," said Raymond Burke, a former tribal council chairman who, at 79, has been going to the Round-Up's Indian village since 1935.

"We've always done it, our families have always done it so we do it," said Wenix Red Elk.

She concedes, however, that "it does perpetuate a negative image in some ways. But everyone still participates."

There are some other tribal members with harsher words.

They say the complete Umatilla story isn't being told by the Happy Canyon pageant script, virtually unchanged since 1916, because it doesn't recognize the social and economic gains the tribes have made.

The Indian half of the popular pageant closes with the three tribes, stripped of 45,000 square miles of their land by the 1855 treaties, being forced onto the reservation.

"We hope to give people the opportunity to realize who we are today, not who we were when the show ends," said Bobbie Conner, director of the 46,000-square-foot Tamastslikt Cultural Center that the tribes built on the reservation with tenaciously cobbled-together donations, federal grants and loans to tell their own story.

It is adjacent to a fairly new casino, resort and golf course that provide 1,100 jobs, making the tribe, she said, the second-largest employer in Eastern Oregon after state agencies.

"We are an important feature of the Round-Up," she said. "Our greatest desire is to make the Round-Up's representation of our people more complete and more compelling."

Organizers of the Happy Canyon pageant defend it.

"This show depicts history. It has nothing to do with the present day and age," said Doug Corey, a member of the Happy Canyon board of directors.

Corey pointed out that "the tribes work closely with us on the script to make changes to get it like it is today."

He said of complaints about the pageant: "I don't think that's a general feeling among the tribal members."

There may not be one general feeling. While there may be some skepticism even among some participants, tribal participation in the pageant, the Round-Up, the Westward Ho parade of beautifully restored wagons and stagecoaches, tribal dances and other Western memorabilia is huge and by all appearances enthusiastic.

There is a sense of identity and pride, and a chance to display it at Round-Up time.

More than 1,000 Indians take part in various Round-Up activities. The reservation is home to about 2,600 members of various tribes, most of them from the Umatilla confederation.

Indian roles in Happy Canyon are handed down from generation to generation and carefully guarded.

Still, some members of the Umatilla aren't completely comfortable with American Indians being put on display.

"Don't misunderstand I love rodeos," said Malissa Minthorn, archival director at the $18 million cultural center.

"But I have a hard time with the issue of separating Indians from non-Indians."

She said spaghetti-Western stereotypes are enough of a problem already.

Visitors to the cultural center still show up at the tasteful, subdued display of old photos, artifacts and Indian art and say "How!" or ask, "Can you leave the reservation?" she said.

Several tribal members suggested that without Indian participation, a hallmark of the event since its 1910 inception, the four-day Round-Up, which draws more than 50,000 visitors to a town of 16,600, would be a shadow of itself.

Given costs of maintaining costumes, some of which are five generations old, time off from work and more, the benefits could be better distributed, they say.

Pageant directors, aware of concerns, brought in outside help to rework the pageant script a couple of years ago, with results that nobody liked. They have, for now, gone back to the 1916 original.

But they have also added a narrative that outlines the mistreatment, deaths by white men's diseases and loss of land to lopsided treaties that came with the settlers.

The Happy Canyon board of directors just got its first Indian member, and facilities at the cramped Indian village have improved somewhat.

For all her misgivings, Conner says she has missed only one Round-Up in 48 years and is an active participant in Happy Canyon. She would, however, like to see it rewritten.

The plateau tribes, she said, have found it is better to sit down and work things out, as they did with non-Indian irrigators to allow a return of enough water in the Umatilla River to bring the salmon back.

Historically, she said, the tribes were known for hospitality and hostility, and were very good at both. "We aren't transient," she said. "We aren't going away."

"I don't know if (the pageant) ever will be entirely politically correct," said Conner, adding that at least it is headed in a direction the tribes want to see it go.

Whatever the complaints, the Round-Up remains a tradition many of the Umatilla look forward to each year. The 2003 Round-Up ended Saturday.

"I still bring my kids (to Happy Canyon). We still ride in the shoot-'em-ups," said Douglas Minthorn, a Cayuse member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. "I pass it on to them so they will know who they are."

Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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Stereotyping Indians by omission
The essential facts about Indians today

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