In 1935, Omak Stampede Publicity Chairman, Claire Pentz searched for an exciting event to add to the young rodeo. He heard about a wild and dangerous mountain race that the local Indians (Colvilles) had been running for many years in the Keller area. It was about that time that Grand Coulee Dam was structured, which flooded the Keller Salmon Days area and race course. After discussing it with local Tribal leaders, and the rodeo board, Pentz originated the Suicide Race. The first race was held in 1935, the second year of the rodeo.
Except for safety measures that have been added, the race is run today as it was in 1935 – no holds barred – on a course that starts 50 feet from a sandy bluff across the Okanogan River from the Stampede arena. Horses and riders race 225 feet down the bluff to the river, swim or wade across and dash 500 yards to the finish line in the center of the Stampede arena. Changes made in recent years require the wearing of life jackets, ban alcohol and drugs for riders or animals, require riders to be at least 16 years of age and animals to be at least five (to assure fully developed bone structure). The course has been widened at the bottom of the hill to eliminate a bottleneck and a limited number of racers are allowed. The horses and riders are numbered with reflective tape to ensure visibility during the night hours. There are also rules concerning animal conditioning, practice runs and elimination heats to limit the field and give contestants experience prior to race time. The horses are bred from sturdy stock and most are raised solely for the race. As in early days, most contestants are young Indians from the Colville or local Tribes. To these outstanding riders and athletes, the race is a “rite of passage” and is a continuation of tribal ritual and tradition.
Practices for the race start three weekends prior to the race. Before your horse is allowed to compete in the race, it must pass three tests to prove its soundness. The first is a vet check making sure the horse is not lame or sore and in sound condition for the race. Vet checks are also performed before each race during the event. The second test is a swim test, the horse must demonstrate the ability to swim or cross the river without hesitation or panic. The third test is a hill test; the horse and rider must show that they can run down the hill at a steady pace without bocking or turning back at the top. Before a horse is allowed to come down the hill, his legs must be wrapped for protection. Once all the tests are passed, the horse and rider are allowed to enter the race.
Money awards are paid out to the top four places in each night’s race and are given points each time they place. At the end of the final race on Sunday the points are added up to decide who is the “King of the Hill” (over all winner) for that year. The over all winner receives money and other awards that consist of two saddles, one to the rider and one to the horse owner plus various prizes that are usually donated by families or businesses close to the race tradition.
In the old days, local Indians gathered at prime fishing sites during the salmon runs to harvest and dry a winter’s supply of fish. A favorite gathering place at the junction of the Sanpoil and Columbia rivers, eventually became the site of Old Keller. The people camped there in late May to fish and prepare for the festivities that always followed the completion of the salmon harvest. The celebration of the salmon is an ancient custom among the tribes of the Columbia Plateau that for centuries depended on the fish for sustenance. It was a time of work, but when the work was through and every person had a supply of dried salmon; it was a time of celebration and ceremony. It was a time of visiting with family and friends, feasting, dancing, and performing the traditional ceremonies that sustained the spiritual life of the people.
Horse racing was sure to be a component of any gathering of Native Americans. A festive parade displaying the horses flamboyantly decorated and in their finest trappings, preceded the races. During this display there was intense speculation and betting on the outcome of the race, with each tribe or band remaining loyal to their own horses. Erskine Wood, adjutant to General O. O. Howard, Colville Reservation. He recalled, “It did not take long for the excitement to grow and soon the bets were showering down and the pile swelling visibly with such great rapidity that is was marvelous how account could be kept. Blankets, furs, saddles, knives, traps, tobacco, beads, whips and a hundred other things were staked,” Though Wood’s visit was part of extensive government negotiations, the Indians still manages to run an average of one horse race per hour during the course of the meeting.
When the necessity of storing up dried salmon for winter was just a memory, the tradition of meeting to celebrate, renew friendships and race horses continued. In the 1920s Hugh McShane, a white man married to a Colville Indian woman named Sadie Nee, began promoting Salmon Days as the Keller Rodeo. In addition to roping and bronc and bull riding, McShane encouraged the continuation of a thrilling and dangerous race called the mountain race.
The mountain race was a holdover from the days when Indian men proved their skill and courage on horseback by competing in daring contests. The race was a half mile, pell-mell down a nearly vertical, boulder-strewn chasm in the face of a mountain. From there the riders raced across a dry channel of the Sanpoil River and charged into the rodeo arena. It soon became the crowd’s favorite event. Long-time Keller resident Henry Kuehne recalled that his parent’s horse, Diamond, a percheron-Hambletonian cross, won the race twice under the ridership of Tex Martin, a San Poil Indian who was a professional bronc rider of local notoriety. Kuehne further noted that original race was far more treacherous than anything seen in modern times, saying, “That old race could really be a horse killer. Compared to it, the race they have now is pretty tame.”
The riders would start the tortuous climb up the mountain early in the day so they could rest their horses when they got to the top. Many a rider who climbed to the starting line failed to run in the race, losing nerve after a look down the steep mountainside. When the riders were given the go-ahead by the starter, veritable chaos ensued. The outcome of the race was often decided by who made it first to a narrow split in the fence of a rock ledge about halfway down the mountain. In the dash to get there first, there were terrible pileups. Kuehne remembered, “Sometimes you’d just see a huge cloud of dust when they got to that gap, and then would come some riders, and after that the guys who fell off would come rolling down the hill.” It was hard to tell if the many bandages and bruises seen around town at rodeo time were from the mountain race, rough stock events or the many brawls that erupted during the course of the rodeo.