SEPTEMBER 2011. PENDLETON, OREGON

Horse named Chinook.  He's a black-and-white Paint, a gelding, owned by Rusty Black of Pendleton, Oregon.I've been living what feels like a Dream Vacation this summer: attending some of America's foremost rodeos.  In August it was the Omak Stampede in central Washington.  A week later I was at Crow Fair, in the town of Crow Agency, Montana.  Now I'm here, along with 15,000 exuberant rodeo fans, for the Pendleton Round-Up.   All the motels have been booked for months (I was lucky to get a room through the kindness of the Round-Up media folks), and downtown Pendleton looks like a cross between Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Beale Street in Memphis, and a Resistol Hats sales conference in, um, northeastern Oregon.  During the day, people actually go watch the rodeo.  That finishes in late afternoon, to leave time for partying.  Everybody is friendly.  The odd things about this particular Dream Vacation are that 1) it's not my dream (it must be somebody else's, misdirected to me through some neuro-ethereal mix-up), and 2) it's not a vacation.  I'm on assignment for National Geographic, researching a story on the role of the horse in Native American cultures.

The reason for attending those particular three rodeos has not been to see the bull riding and calf roping and barrel racing, etc., or to raise my cholesterol level on a diet of curly fries and pulled pork.  The reason is that Omak, Crow Fair, and Pendleton all feature certain equestrian events that are uniquely embraced by Native American riders today.  In Omak, it's the Suicide Race (or, as its organizers prefer to bill it, the World Famous Suicide Race), details of which I'll leave to your imagination, at least for now.  At Crow Fair, and also here at Pendleton, it's the Indian Relay, a wonderfully frantic race that involves three fast circuits of the track, dead stops, leaping dismounts and re-mounts, and nothing so superfluous as a saddle.  Again, more on that later, maybe, in the magazine piece.  My purpose here is merely to share with you the image of one magnificent horse I was fortunate enough to meet during these travels.

His name is Chinook.  He's a black-and-white Paint, a gelding, owned by Rusty Black of Pendleton and ridden each evening, by a big Blackfeet man named Ray McDonald, in the Happy Canyon Indian Pageant and Wild West Show.  Happy Canyon is a shamelessly oldfangled nightly pageant, held in a special arena beside the rodeo grounds, and it certainly must be the closest thing to Bill Cody's old traveling show that 21st century America has to offer.  Chinook alone is worth the price of admission.  The show begins with Ray McDonald, at about 6'3" and 240 pounds, in his war bonnet and other regalia, riding the pied Paint onstage atop a high catwalk in the Happy Canyon scenery.  The show ends Horse named Chinook.  He's a black-and-white Paint, a gelding, owned by Rusty Black of Pendleton, Oregon.with Chinook and Ray featured again, in a tight spotlight, while the national anthem plays.  Corny, yes, and somewhat politically oxymoronic (given the history of relations between Native Americans and the U.S. of A.)—but it works.  The night I saw them, Chinook was so spirited that I thought he might leap straight down into the orchestra pit.   But Ray controlled him, and together they cast quite a presence.

When I met the horse next day, in his stall, he indulged me to stroke his neck.  I spoke with Ray McDonald, who said of this awesome animal: "He feeds off the crowd."  On his left side, as you can see, Chinook has a black eyespot and, within it, a brown eye.  That side is what shows when he makes his first entrance.  On the right side, his face is white and his eye is blue with a rim of pink.  So he seems a little oxymoronic himself.  A classic Indian pony, though owned by a white woman.  A badass when seen in left profile, a much milder creature as viewed from the right.  Born to star but humble.  He doesn't sign autographs.