August 11, 2006

The World Famous Omak Stampede and Suicide Race

After SIGIR ended, I flew to Spokane, WA, where I rented a car and drove out to visit my grandparents in Omak, Washington. The Omak Stampede is a rodeo that is held every second weekend in August. In 1935, the Omak Stampede Publicity Chairman (Claire Pentz) was searching for an exciting event to add to the then young rodeo. About that time the Grand Coulee Dam was being built, and it flooded out an area where the nearby Colville Indians had run a traditional wild and dangerous race as a rite-of-passage. After discussion with the local Tribal leaders and Rodeo board, the Suicide Race was born.

The race has changed little since the first running in 1935, outside of some safety measures that have been taken. The riders now have to wear life jackets, and the horses undergo a thorough physical and testing to make sure that they will not balk at running down the steep bluff and swimming across Okanogan river. The race itself is a no holds barred race down a 225 foot very steep sandy bluff to the river, then swim across the river and race 500 feet into the finish line at the Stampede Arena. Riders have to be at least 16 years old, and are almost always young Indian men. The horses are also well vetted to insure that they will be able to complete the race. Sometimes horses show up without riders, and sometimes horse and rider don't make it to the finish line, but generally injuries are uncommon (but not rare.)

The Suicide Race is the final event in the Omak Stampede Rodeo. It was just pure luck, but I arrived in Omak on the start of the Stampede. Since I had never been to the Stampede before, and I won't likely have another chance soon, I thought it would be a good idea to experience it this time around. I got tickets for Friday night - it was surprisingly cheap! Only $20 for good seats near the "chutes" (I was told they are good seats anyway.) The chutes are where the riders and horses come out. There was lots of riders on bucking broncos and later on bulls. The Suicide Race capped off the evening.

I'm not really sure how the riders are scored, but it was pretty fun watching. I've got a set of pictures about the Omak Stampede on Flickr that you can check out.

I've also got a few short videos up on youtube.com from the stampede.


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