This story first appeared in the May 1993 WH. For more on Phillip Whiteman Jr., see this month’s print feature, “Native Ways.”
In the summer of 1876, a sagebrush flat near Lame Deer, Montana, served as a campground for the U.S. Cavalry on the night before the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Evidence of this encampment are the scores of soldiers’ names scribed in the surrounding sandstone outcroppings.
Today, a small rodeo arena has been erected on this same sagebrush flat. For the past two years, it has been the location of the Phillip Whiteman Jr. and Monty “Hawkeye”Henson Rodeo School. In 1992, the event was June 17-19, and included special guest Don Gay.
It was a school of a different caliber, one in which students not only received expert advice in their specific roughstock event, they also took part in a cultural experience.
Phillip of Lame Deer is an eight-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier, and was the Indian world champion saddle-bronc rider in 1985. A Northern Cheyenne Indian, Phillip is also nationally acclaimed in the art of traditional grass dancing.
1992 was the second year for the school, and it was quickly booked with the limit of 50 students. They came from as far away as Hawaii and California and as nearby as the neighboring ranch. The diverse cultural mix was exactly what Phillip was looking for.
The reason Phillip started the school was “for students and cowboys to have the opportunity to learn about each other’s cultures and way of life, and to keep the Old West alive.”The 1992 school was in honor of Phillips’s parents, Florence and Phillip Whiteman Sr.
The uniqueness of the school was evident in the opening night ceremony, when students and guests took part in a powwow. The ceremony was put on by the descendants of Chief Little Wolf, in celebration of the return of the Northern Cheyenne to their homeland in the Tongue River Valley. This historic, tragic, and triumphant event happened in the year 1878, when the Northern Cheyenne escaped from a reservation in Oklahoma and fought their way back to Montana.
The powwow was complete with local Indian drummers and dance contests. Henson and Gay were given special recognition at the festivities and were honored with gifts. Both received traditional war bonnets, Gay got a handmade bow and arrows, and Henson received handbeaded moccasins.
Henson was also the first person outside the tribe to be given a Northern Cheyenne name. The name-giver was Austin Two Moons Sr., grandson of Chief Two Moons. Henson’s given Indian name is I noh ma âexa, which means Hawkeye in Northern Cheyenne.
Instead of staying at a local motel, the students camped in tepees. A sweat lodge was also erected on the camping grounds, and the students were all invited to use it.
Each morning the chutes rattled and the rosin started to squeak. Phillip had combed the region to find good stock for the event, gathering animals from four contractors. He wanted a string of horses, bulls and steers that would test the ability of each student. The more seasoned competitors were put on the hard buckers, and the novices rode the lighter stock.
Many students were getting on roughstock for the first time, but they helped each other. And whether they came from the college ranks or from a ranch, the only ones who would win buckles at the school were those who improved the most.
The school was designed to give the students the most personal instruction possible. A bucking machine, which was provided by PRCA bareback rider Garin Gleich, played a big part in the school. Under the controlled motion of the bucking machine, students could drill on fundamentals and get hands-on instruction from the professionals at the exact moment they were making a mistake.
The three roughstock groups rotated. While one group rode livestock, another rode the machine, and the third group went directly from the arena to the bleachers where they could talk about their rides while the questions were still fresh in their minds.
Limiting the number of entries kept the student-teacher ratio favorable for learning. After each ride, one of the teachers would always hustle out and walk back with the student, giving him advice and answering questions. Students also learned a great deal by watching their peers. On each ride, good points and bad were stressed to the onlookers.
If there were any guiding rules, they were hustle and determination. These were stressed over and over by the teachers, and although some students will never make the National Finals Rodeo, they took home the benefit of that attitude.
The enthusiasm of the teachers rubbed off on the students. One particular ride that sticks in my mind was made by a youngster in the bull riding. He had bucked off a couple pretty hard, but that was understandable. He lasted longer on each ride, and you could definitely tell that this kid had try. As he bore down on a rank, little yearling bull, you could see in Gay’s eyes that he wanted this youngster to ride that bull as badly as the boy himself did.
Learning over the chute, Gay had give the boy a pep talk that I’m sure he will never forget. You could see the boy hanging on every word, as he gripped the bull tighter and tighter. When the chute opened, everyone was pulling for the young rider. I doubt that the legendary Oscar could have bucked the young man off that day, and when he hit the dirt a full eight seconds had passed.
Safety was stressed at the clinic, and all students were watched closely. They were briefed on how to get off their livestock safely, and on how to get down on stock in the chutes.
When the clinic ended, everyone had learned something, whether it was how to hold your rigging, the beauty of Northern Cheyenne celebrations and culture, or some principles to grow on.
As for Don Gay, he’s probably still out behind the barn practicing with his new bow and arrows.