rodeo queen wants to draw attention to missing and murdered indigenous peoples | New

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CASPER – Shayla Conner was just a teenager when her cousin Hanna Harris went missing. Nine days later, authorities found Harris’ body on the rodeo grounds at the North Cheyenne Preserve in Montana.

Conner, a registered member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, his family and the community have come together. They marched, toured the capital and strategized at family dinners. After six years of lobbying, former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock enacted the Hanna Law in 2019, speeding up investigations and searches on the reserve with funding from the state’s Department of Justice.

Conner, who now lives in Greybull, has learned firsthand that awareness can lead to change. So when she decided to compete for Miss Sheridan WYO Rodeo Queen, she knew she wanted to stand up for the missing and murdered indigenous peoples.

And in a fateful way, she won the rodeo queen’s crown in 2019 – 61 years after her grandmother Carolyn Small Martin won the title, marking the third time an Indigenous woman has received this honor. .

“My grandmother ran in 1958, and they had an applause counter (to decide the winner),” Conner said. “You were riding a horse, you looked good, and if the crowd likes you, you got it.” But nowadays it’s more of a pageant style. You have your speech, your interview, your modeling and, of course, your talent and your riding.

But Conner took a different path than other rodeo queens.

She chose to use her platform to draw attention to a difficult topic steeped in uncomfortable truths: Indigenous peoples are disappearing and being murdered at higher rates than the rest of the population, but often with far less. Warning.

“Wherever I went, I always put red handprints on (both) my horses ‘shoulders, and then people would come up to me and ask me’ why did you put a red handprint on your horse? “” said Conner. “The red handprint symbolizes missing and murdered Indigenous women. And I represent them by spreading my story, so people can hear what’s going on in my community.

Conner seemed destined to follow in his grandmother’s footsteps, who still operates a ranch to this day and comes from a long line of rope access workers, saddle riders and bareback riders.

As a child, Conner participated in the Sheep Slaughter and the Junior Barrel Race. Growing up on her family’s ranch, she developed riding skills from a young age, which led to her joining the Wrangler Flag Girls’ Team and participating in regional rodeos.

While Conner’s grandmother always wanted one of her granddaughters to try and become rodeo queen, Conner’s reign was a mix of serendipity that crashed into fate.

Conner raced for the rodeo queen after one of his Wrangler trainers recommended him. But it was his grandmother who solidified his desire to run for the title.

As the face of the rodeo, queens are expected to interact and educate fans on all aspects of the sport. Appearance is part, but a queen isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Most importantly, the Queen is a stellar representative of the city and of Western culture in general.

“The competition is to model two outfits,” Conner said. “Elegant then a classic or an avant-garde. Then you go horseback riding like your talent. So you do a reining model, then for Sheridan I did a freestyle model, which is whatever I wanted to do.

Judges and jury members ask a series of questions: How many bones does a horse have? Who is the President of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association? What is your position on COVID-19?

There is a common misconception when it comes to rodeo competition, said Kerri Parr, chair of the Sheridan Wyo Rodeo Royalty Board.

From the outside, it looks like the women are competing against each other. But in reality, they’re really competing with the idea in every judge’s mind of what a rodeo queen really is.

“And so it’s kind of impossible because you don’t know what’s on their mind,” Parr said.

While winning a rodeo pageantry is hard enough, the Queen herself, some say, is even more difficult.

For Conner, even taking the time to get off his horse to drink water is a challenge on rodeo nights. Conner’s rodeo day can begin between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. with the feeding and watering of four different horses. She competes in slack, goes home, cleans and dresses for the rodeo. She returns to the rodeo around 4 p.m., three hours before the evening kicks off.

“I have my horses saddled and painted (a red handprint on it to show my solidarity with the missing and murdered indigenous peoples.) I go to the arena to do my flag sponsorship, leave the arena and put my flag away, and I go back to the arena and make my wave queen.

On top of that, she must return to the arena, retrieve her flag, and replace the Indian relays. She drops her flag and cleans the cattle. The rodeo ends around 10 p.m., but his day is still not over. She must gather her horses and put them in the barn. By the time she goes to bed, it’s 1 a.m.

“I get up and start over,” she said.

Native Americans have a long history of participating in the Sheridan Rodeo. The Raven and the Northern Cheyenne participated in Native American pageants, but were later relegated to vaudevillian acts.

It wasn’t until 1951 that a member of the Crow tribe, Lucy Yellow Mule, was chosen as the queen of the rodeo. She was the first Aboriginal person to receive this honor.

Connor’s grandmother was the second. And now Conner holds the title.

Parr has been involved in competitions long enough to know when a competitor has something special about them. Conner is a confident speaker, at ease on stage and can step up, noted Parr.

“She really is a rodeo queen with a lot of substance,” Parr said. “And when she came to us with the idea of ​​raising awareness about missing and murdered indigenous peoples – because it was very personal for her and her tribe – we thought, ‘This is perfect. “”

The rodeo community has embraced it as well.

Over the summer, the Sheridan Rodeo devoted Saturday evening to raising awareness of missing and murdered indigenous peoples.

“The flag girls helped me by putting red handprints on their horses; it was really sweet, ”Conner said. “But over the past two years, as Miss Sheridan, I’ve seen a lot of change. More people of color entering the next level (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.) ”

In Wyoming, native people make up 3% of the state’s population. But they make up 14% of missing people and 21% of total homicide victims in the state, according to a January report from the Wyoming Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force.

In Montana, nearly 6,000 Indigenous people were reported missing between 2017 and 2019, and nearly 80% were under the age of 18, according to an analysis from the Montana Department of Justice.

“This report really opened my eyes, but I think it confirmed what many of us already knew was going on there,” Sen. Affie Ellis – a Cheyenne Republican, citizen of the nation Navajo and co-chair of the Legislature’s Select committee on tribal affairs – said at the time.

The January report also cited negative media coverage as a barrier. Only 30% of Aboriginal homicide victims receive media coverage, compared to 51% of white homicide victims.

And this problem became clear with the recent disappearance and murder of Gabby Petito, a white woman from Florida. Petito went missing in Grand Teton National Park on a road trip with her boyfriend, sparking a social media frenzy and widespread media coverage.

In the aftermath, commentators noted that more than 700 Indigenous women had gone missing in Wyoming over the past decade when they received only a fraction of the attention.

The problem is old, going back to the first contact with Europeans. And many argue that pop culture and an outdated sense of history, describing the life of Sacagewa or Pocahontas as joyful or filled with love, gives air to the belief that indigenous lives have no meaning. importance.

Conner believes that using his platform to talk about missing and murdered Indigenous peoples can lead to something bigger.

“Just being Miss Sheridan, I’ve seen a lot of changes over the past two years,” Conner said. “There have been more and more people of color joining the higher ranks of the PRCA and it has been a lot of fun for (the experience), and I can tell them about it.”

And the tide slowly turned in the world of rodeo queens.

In 2016, two Indigenous women won rodeo titles in South Dakota, Soni Clifford and Staci Trehern, New Mexico.

Now Parr and Conner hope the trend continues. Conner finished second for Miss Rodeo Wyoming earlier this summer, and she now plans to take a break from competing on the pageantry circuit.

But the rodeo and awareness of the missing and murdered Indigenous Peoples movement is still in its future. The same goes for the diversification of the ranks of the rodeo and the pageantry.

“I think (my reign) can open doors for other girls. Like maybe from the Cheyenne Reservation or the Crow Reservation, ”she said. “If they’re thinking, ‘If Shayla can just get in there, then maybe I can just get in too.'”


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