Tribal leaders support decision to cancel Round-Up, Happy Canyon

Boots Pond, a member of the Board of Trustees for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said he is “relieved” that the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Pageant will not be held in September due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other Tribal officials support the decision not to have the annual events in Pendleton.

By Wil Phinney of the CUJ

MISSION – Elected officials from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), along with the outspoken Chief of the Walla Walla Tribe, have expressed their support and “relief” that the 2020 Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon have been cancelled.

The Round-Up and Happy Canyon boards of directors are using the phrase “not hosting the event,” rather than “cancelling,” but the result is the same:

For only the third time in its iconic history, the Pendleton Round-Up and the Happy Canyon Indian Pageant & Wild West Show and associated events will not be held during the second full week in September in Pendleton. This would have been the 110th Round-Up and the 104th Happy Canyon Pageant.

As it has been for many other events throughout the country and the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is to blame for the cancellation. Rodeos across the west, from the Farm-City-Pro Rodeo in Hermiston to the Calgary Stampede in Alberta, Canada and from Chief Joseph Days to Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming, have also been put on hold.

The decision by the Round-Up and Happy Canyon boards was made after consultation with county and state authorities.

“Even though an unprecedented effort was made to attempt to move forward, it has become apparent after consultation with our local county and state authorities at the highest level that we will be unable to hold our events in light of the risks and challenges that we all currently face,” Round-Up Indian Director Harper Jones II wrote to CTUIR Board of Trustees members.

Additionally, Jones wrote, “The concerns of the BOT and the individual members of the General Council with whom we have been in contact have greatly weighed in the decision not to proceed with planning.”

Some of the people who apparently were not contacted by Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon officials were Round-Up chiefs Don Sampson (Peo Peo Mox Mox) and Bill Burke of the Walla Wallas, and Jesse Jones of the Cayuse.

Sampson was involved in back-and-forth e-mail correspondence with Round-Up Board officials in early June expressing his displeasure with the way the decision-making and announcements were being orchestrated.

After the decision was announced Friday, Sampson issued this statement:

“While I am still concerned about the lack of consultation with the tribe, our tribal chiefs, our women leaders, and community members about whether to hold the Round-Up and the plan to protect our tribal participants’ health and safety, I do support the cancellation of this year’s event. I spoke to Chief Jesse Jones and Chief Bill Burke and they both agreed that protecting our communities’ health and the many Tribes who visit was our first priority. I look forward to meeting with the Round-Up and Happy Canyon Boards regularly so we can begin planning for next year and building a strong partnership based on transparency, good communications, and trust.”

Boots Pond, a member of the CTUIR Board of Trustees, said he was relieved by the decision, especially since elders in his family have been decades-long stalwarts in the Indian village.

“My Auntie and Grandpa have that mindset to stay at the village even this year because they clean and bring food in for the people on Wednesday and Thursday,” Pond said.

BOT Secretary Sally Kosey said she thinks the Round-Up and Happy Canyon boards of directors made a “good strong decision to cease” the events this year.

“It’s a good thing to keep everybody safe,” said Kosey, who participates each year in Happy Canyon and sits at a table in the tee-pee village all week accepting applications for the American Indian Beauty Pageant. “I’m not only concerned about tribal members, but about our relatives who come here from Warm Springs, Yakama and Lapwai, and other places. Keep in mind many of the people from our community pack up and leave home for a week.”

Kosey said canceling the Round-Up is going to “kill the economy.”

“A lot of people will be sad, but I’d rather be safe and alive than have a worse pandemic that we already have,” she said.

BOT Chair Kat Brigham compared the Round-Up’s tough call to the one the Tribes’ had to make in March.

“I’m glad they were thinking of the safety of the community, not just the tribal community, but the contestants, everyone,” she said. “It was a hard decision. That’s why we closed the casino, education, our government, for the safety of our employees. Now it’s for the safety of the contestants, participants and tribal members.”

Pond, who famously wears a lime-green beaded face mask during Happy Canyon and when he walks in the Westward Ho! Parade, said he will miss the action this year.

“I’ve been in Happy Canyon since I was a newborn and I’ve only missed four years when I was in college. This would have been 20 years exactly so this is bittersweet, but it had to be done,” he said.

Pond said he will look on the bright side.

“There are a lot of things that aren’t happening this year, but there’s always next year. 2021 will be a year to rejoice and reflect, to prepare for bigger and better. Hopefully it will all be over and we’ll be able to say we’re still here,” Pond said.

According to their official news release, members of the Round-Up and Happy Canyon boards and staff began meeting on a weekly basis in March with local, state and various association representatives to discuss the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and how the event could go on in a traditional and full manner.

“Through the efforts of all involved, we remained optimistic that the event may have the possibility of moving forward,” the news release states. “The focus of the effort was to pursue a pathway forward to preserve the benefits and involvement of the entire community and region by hosting the event in the full tradition and historic manner.”

Toward that goal, a comprehensive operational plan was submitted to the Governor’s office to implement various safety protocols in order to host guests that attend and participate in various community events.

The plans would have needed approval by state officials.

“As it has become evident that the events would not be allowed under the current strict restrictions, the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon boards of directors believe that the best course is to not host the events for 2020,” the news release states. “This difficult decision is in the best interest for the health and safety of the community, volunteers, tribal participants, vendors, sponsors and contestants. Not having an event in 2020 will have an impact on our entire community, region, local businesses, supporters, sponsors and loyal fans.”