Recovering Voices from the Archives: Indian Prison Rodeo

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I’m in Saint Paul, Minnesota for the Western History Association’s annual conference and to explore the archives at the Minnesota Historical Society related to the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee (WKLDOC for short). It’s an expansive archive that collects 149 boxes related to the organization that defended participants in the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973. Much of it is outside the purview of my dissertation (thankfully I don’t have to read the box upon box of legal proceedings), and given that I only have two days to spelunk through the entire archive, I had to make choices about what I would and would not look at.

By chance one of the boxes I needed happened to have some folders from Indian prisoners corresponding with the Native American Solidarity Committee, a group of non-native supporters that grew out of the WKLDOC committee. While the group came under suspicion for radical involvement and possible attempts to carry out attacks during the 1976 bi-centennial ceremonies, they’re important here because one of the letters they received from an Indian prisoner included a short discussion of a prison rodeo. Prison rodeos, while still going on, are not nearly as popular or widespread as in the past. In this case the prison rodeo would be held at the Menard Correctional Center in southern Illnois along the Mississippi River (and most famous for being the prison Harrison Ford escapes from in The Fugitive). To quote the part of the prisoner’s letter from late August 1976:

“They’re having a rodeo here inside the walls where prisoners will be allowed to participate. We’re getting a new warden and maybe this is his way to get close to the population. An unusual gesture but quite effective, only a joint full of fantasizing cowboys isn’t my picture of a harmonious population, still I signed up to ride a brahma bull and here that so far there’s only four signed up for the event. If an indian takes the prize, I think its saying something.”1

The reference goes unacknowledged in the reply letter and I either missed any follow-up letters that discussed the outcome, or there wasn’t one. Either way I’ve attempted to do some quick searching and can’t find any references to the rodeo, so it may have not happened. But at the very least an interesting tidbit from the archives as I sit waiting for the next box to be delivered.

  1. Ron Baumgartner Letter, 8/24/1976, Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee Records. Minnesota Historical Society, Box 101, Folder Letters from prisoners, 1976-1977 (1st).