WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - Inside dusty rodeo arenas across the country, Navajo cowboys and cowgirls are getting noticed as serious competition.
One Indian rodeo has risen in the ranks through the years in the name of competition.
The International Indian Finals Rodeo (IIFR) will take place at the Wildhorse Pass Resort and Casino in Chandler on Nov. 6-9, and the Navajo Nation is sending some of the best in the business.
A dozen cowboys and cowgirls from the Navajo Nation will be competing in the rodeo as wildcard contenders because of their first place finishes in the Navajo Nation Fair and Rodeo in September.
Ray Russell, director of Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department, said the Navajo athletes competing are expected to represent the Navajo Nation well.
"Our wildcard entries are winners from the Navajo Nation Fair Rodeo," Russell said. "They will not only be representing the Navajo Nation Fair, but the Navajo people [and] we will have a reception for them in Chandler before the IIFR kicks off on Nov. 6," he added.
Winners from the Navajo Nation Fair Rodeo competing in the IIFR are Benny Begay, Alonzo Yazzie, Terrance Granger, Myron Lee, Nelson Long, Debbie Robbins, Raynell Holgate, Roger Gishie, Kyle Little, Renaldo Holgate, Laci Begay and Karl Dennison.
The participation of Navajo Nation Fair Rodeo winners in the IIFR was the brainchild of a veteran Navajo cowboy, Edison Bitsui, 55, commissioner for the IIFR.
Bitsui's organization consists of seven U.S. and Canadian Indian associations in North America: All Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association, Central Navajo Rodeo Association, California Nevada Indian Rodeo Association, Columbia River Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association, Native Cowboy Rodeo Association, Prairie Indian Rodeo Association and the Reservation Rodeo Cowboy Association.
The sole purpose of the IIFR was to spotlight Native cowboys with a major finals Indian rodeo.
"The IIFR was established in 2005, and held at North Battlefort in Saskatchewan, Canada," Bitsui said. "The IIFR is taking the top three from each affiliated association in the eight standard rodeo events and three minor events."
Bitsui became a commissioner with the IIFR after working for the AIRCA on the Navajo Nation for five years.
Working as a commissioner for the organization, he said the AIRCA didn't have a major Indian Finals Rodeo to compete in.
"The IIFR kind of fell into our hands and since then, the CNRA and AIRCA have been a major part of the IIFR," he said.
His love for the sport was born from his own competition experiences.
From the 1970s and 1980s, Bitsui competed in bareback riding for a period of 18 years and team roping since 1969. The need to compete is something innate, he said.
"I believe so many of our Navajo appreciate rodeo because it is a part of our culture," he said. "Handling and caring for livestock has always been a way of life for us and it's natural for our youth to pick up the sport."
Despite the popularity of the sport on Indian nations, there are still challenges blocking further progression, like the need for bigger purses for winners and upgraded facilities.
Navajos still compete, he said, and their dedication is usually the result of their upbringing.
"The advantages of competition is that it builds good character, positive attitude and an appreciation for livestock," Bitsui said.
This year, 286 contestants will be competing in the IIFR. At last year's rodeo, average winners walked away with over $5,000 in earnings from continuous wins throughout the finals.
To attract top draw athletes and keep the momentum rolling, Bitusi said he only sees rodeo growing more in the next decade.
"Our rodeos can improve if our nation builds indoor facilities to accommodate our athletes," he said. "The only way we can improve our rodeos is to get more national corporate sponsors involved."
That's not an easy order to be certain, and coupled with the need for an attractive rodeo purse, decent facilities and quality rodeo stock, Bitsui said Indian rodeo associations have their work cut out for them.
In the face of these challenges, he's extremely excited with two young Navajo cowboys on the verge of making a presence on the national scene.
"It's a well-known fact the AIRCA is the oldest established Indian Rodeo organization in North America. Since the beginning of the AIRCA, we have never had two Navajos on the verge of qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo," he said.
"That says a lot about how far we have come over the years. To have two young Navajo cowboys, Derreck Begay and Spud Jones about to make it to the Big Show is something to be proud of," Bitsui said.
During the 2007 IIFR, Navajo athletes returned home with nine world titles and nearly $100,000 in prize money. In a rugged world rife with competition, Bitsui always admires the spirit of a young athlete.
"I appreciate young talent because they have a good upbringing, good attitude and they know how to cowboy up," he said. "In my opinion, the best place to host a big Indian rodeo is near Navajos, because they will make your rodeo."
For more information, visit www.iifrodeo.com.
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