Shared from the 1/8/2020 Duluth News Tribune eEdition

Indian Relay forms a family tradition


Victor J. Blue / © 2020 The New York Times Jace Long Feather rides in an Indian Relay event at the Crow Fair, in Crow Agency, Mont., Aug. 17. Long Feather prefers wrestling shoes to riding boots, and favors gym shorts and side-cut T-shirts.

CROW AGENCY, Mont. — Richard Long Feather is searching for his son Jace among the bareback riders as they storm toward the grandstand at the Crow Fair. Stepping away from the rail and onto the dirt of the track, Richard raises his arms above his head as a signal: In one motion, he is telling Jace where to aim and warning Jace’s horse to slow down.

Before Jace even reaches his father, he leaps from the back of his horse. Hitting the ground bounding, Jace grabs a handful of mane of a second horse, held by his brother, Jestin, and swings himself onto its back. Jestin slaps the second mount on the rump, and it fires back onto the track. Richard hands off the first horse to a fourth teammate and braces for the next exchange. Dust swirls. The crowd cheers.

This is Indian Relay.

For the Long Feathers, races like these are both a family undertaking and a deep-rooted passion, a form of competition practiced and sustained by Native American tribes in the plains states. In Indian Relay’s traditional form, one rider completes three circuits of a track, changing his mount after each loop. Each race features up to eight teams consisting of a rider, three steely handlers and three horses. The competitors ride bareback, using only reins and a whip to stay on. As the rider approaches the starting line for each successive lap, he leaps from a running horse onto a fresh one. It is dangerous, athletic and intensely competitive.

Richard Long Feather, the head of his family and his team, was born in 1963 on the Standing Rock reservation. He soon proved himself to be a natural horseman, riding bareback across the prairie to hunt, herd cattle and race his friends along the bottom lands of the Grand River. As a teenager, he began entering so-called suicide races — unofficial cross-country competitions on improvised courses. After his uncles recruited him as a rider for their Indian Relay team, he built a reputation as a tough rider and dependable breaker of colts.

Jace Long Feather, 21, has ridden in relay races since he was 14. Training for relays is a constant. “You hate it; you don’t want to wake up,” Jace said of the 6 a.m. weight lifting and agility workouts that fill his winter months.

Conditioning for the horses starts early, as well. “This year we started and there was still 3 feet of snow on the ground,” he said. “Make ‘em jump through those big snow banks. It just builds ‘em up.”

Ken Real Bird, a Crow horseman, calls the races at the Crow Fair. He has seen the sport grow from a bush-league pastime to a high-stakes competition, with purses worth tens of thousands of dollars. No one knows for sure when Indian Relay began in its modern iteration. The Shoshone Bannock Tribe in Idaho claims to be the originator of the sport, but Real Bird notes that the first Crow Fair, in 1904, had horse racing.

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