Wonderful, gritty 'Indian Relay' documentary airs on PBS


If you have access to a TV on November 18, I recommend that you tune in for the nationwide debut of a new documentary about Indians in the West devoting themselves to a zany kind of horse racing. If you're in Montana, catch the local debut on Montana PBS on October 31. They call their sport "Indian relay," reflected in the documentary's title, and along with being zany, it's far more compelling and meaningful than the conventional, hyped-up, overproduced horse racing that white people stage.

Zack Rock and Luke Rock head into the home stretch during a relay race at Crow Native Days in Crow Agency, Montana. Video still from Dawson Dunning.

The Indian racers ride bareback with no saddles, helmets, goggles or other safety equipment around an oval track, so rapidly that it's amazing they can even stay mounted. On top of that, "relay" means, each rider jumps off his first horse while still in motion at the end of the first lap, hits the ground running and attempts to leap onto his second horse to ride the second lap, then attempts another high-speed "exchange" to ride a third horse for the third lap.

When riders leap off one horse and try to mount the next, on the run, it can be chaos. Video still from Dawson Dunning.

This kind of horse racing is a hoot. It also seems especially dangerous, requiring courage and great horse-handling skills on a low budget. And it's a strong positive counterpoint to all the troubles on the reservations.

The Indian Relay trailer gives you a moving glimpse of the thundering hooves, cultural significance and inevitable outbreaks of chaos:

I was in an audience of several hundred people who were riveted by this documentary, watching it on a big movie screen in a special October 17 premiere in the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana every seat in the auditorium filled, and overflow seating in the museum's planetarium, where they showed it simultaneously on the domed ceiling. Indian Relay also had special October premieres in six other Montana towns, and on the Shoshone-Bannock reservation in Fort Hall, Idaho, as a gesture of appreciation to everyone who participates in the races, and to stimulate wider public interest. Kendall Old Horn, a Crow racer wearing a cowboy hat, told the Bozeman crowd: "For Indians, this is our professional sport," and they want the sport to gain a larger following.

Kendall Old Horn, owner of the MM Indian Relay Team. Video still from Rick Smith.

There are roughly 60 to 70 Indian relay teams based on reservations in Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon and the Dakotas. The guy who made the documentary, Charles Dye, and other racers also came to the Bozeman premiere. Dye complimented his film crew, some of whom were also in the audience, for their "amazing shots ... of horses going HUGE."

Dye himself is an interesting somewhat grizzled Western character who's weathered some hard knocks. I talked with him, one-on-one over breakfast, a few days later. He was born in Ruidoso, N.M., where his parents ran a guest ranch. His biological father drowned when he was seven months old, and eventually he moved around with a stepfather who was a college physics professor in California, Texas and finally Casa Grande, Ariz. In high school in Arizona, Dye got into cross-country racing (on foot, not horseback) and hung out with members of Arizona tribes who were on those teams. "I noticed that all my Indian friends hung out with Indians, and all my European-American friends hung out with European-Americans," Dye told me. "I started to occupy this place between two worlds."

Indian Relay producer-director Charles Dye during production at the Shoshone-Bannock Festival in Fort Hall, Idaho. Photograph by Michael Suarez.

Dye's bio includes, in rough order beginning in high school: stints as an exchange student in Australia and Costa Rica, riding a bike from Arizona to a Wyoming ranch where another relative worked, exploring Europe on a bike, a stint at the University of Arizona studying creative writing (where he took a course taught by Ed Abbey, the iconoclastic desert scribe), a stint as a bicycle messenger in Seattle, a season of "cycle-cross racing" in Europe (you run with the bike on your back for part of the race), then five years of bike racing in Japan, then studying filmmaking at the University of Washington and earning a master's degree in it at Montana State University in Bozeman. His interest in bridging between cultures shows in several of his films, including Last of the Gum Men (profiling five chicleros extracting natural gum from trees in Guatemala), A Cat Called Elvis (about the relationship of snow leopards, Mongolians and Westerners like him), and Before There Were Parks: Yellowstone and Glacier through Native Eyes (Indian perspectives on landscapes that became these famous national parks). Now, seeking steady income, he's teaching filmmaking at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. He flew back to Montana to make a few appearances at the special premieres of Indian Relay.

Cover image of the documentary. A video still from the Indian Relay races at the Northwest Montana State Fair in Kalispell, Montana.

"Indian Relay is not a story mainstream America knew about or wanted, but it's a story Indian America loved," because the sport is so popular on reservations, Dye said. "I wanted to share that love with mainstream America." He invested four years in the project, and eventually his crew shot more than 500 hours of digital film, following teams from reservations around the Northern Rockies as they went through grueling training and race after race, culminating in the 2011 championship. For a while during the production process, Dye was sleeping in his car to keep expenses as low as possible.

The crew deployed up to 13 cameras for each race, capturing the flying dirt clods and the beauty and determination.

"Relay is such an unpredictable sport," Kendall Old Horn told the Bozeman crowd. "Every race, you don't know what you're going to be up against, if (a horse) blows up or just decides to stop ... the Number One thing is the pride of our tribe, our people ... that's why the teams work so hard to do so good."

Rick Smith uses an ultra-high-speed camera to record details of Sage Momberg racing past him, at the Charging Home Race Track in Browning, Montana. Photograph by Charles Dye.

A few other tidbits about this sport: The landscape where they keep the horses is an essential aspect. Women have joined or even formed a few teams, but generally they're not part of the championship competition. The teams often get horses discarded by white people's conventional operations, which only use race horses for a few years and then consider them too old. In Indian relay, horses are kept in service until they're as old as 18 or 19; one in the documentary is 17 years old. "The old (horses) are the good ones. They become part of our families," Scotty Osborne, a Blackfeet relay racer, told the Bozeman crowd.

Someone in the audience asked, "How often do the horses get hurt?" One of the riders answered, "Not as often as we do," drawing a round of laughter.

If you'd like to watch one of these horse races in person, the Professional Indian Horse Racing Association website has a schedule. Meanwhile, until the next racing season gets going, check the PBS listings for showings of Indian Relay.

Blackfeet racer Myles Murray and his aunt, Molly Murray, train their relay horses near Browning, Montana. Photograph by Jamie Jelenchick Jacobsen.

Ray Ring is a senior editor at High Country News.

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