Most history buffs say the rodeo was born in 1869, when two groups of cowboys met in Deer Trail, Colorado, to settle an argument about who was the better cowboy. But that was 152 years ago, before it became a sport, before the scope of time-honored traditions settled in — before anyone could believe minorities would find refuge there.
Elyssa Ford, an associate professor of history, wrote a book detailing how diverse communities are impacted by rodeo. Her book titled “Rodeo as Refuge, Rodeo as Rebellion” goes beyond the cowboy cliches to provide a complete view of the American West.
Inspiration for her book came during an internship her senior year of college at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. Ford, who grew up in Eastville, Texas, has been around rodeo a lot of her life, but it wasn’t something she was involved in or interested in until the internship.
Ford noticed the museum, at the time, focused mostly on white women; there were only two nonwhite women in the Hall of Fame. Ford said she knew there had to be more minorities involved in rodeo. She knew there were several different types of nonwhite rodeos that existed and that the historic population of Texas allowed for diverse representation in the arenas.
After pondering the issue for a while, Ford thought the concept would be perfect for her master’s thesis and Ph.D. dissertation in graduate school. Investigating these roots of rodeo became her mission.
“These are not the dominant rodeos. People are not as familiar with them, and most people haven’t cared about them,” Ford said. “So no one was collecting their stories, or archives haven't been collecting their … meetings or materials.”
“For most history projects you get to go to an archive and study the materials and then say, ‘I’m going to determine what the story is based on that,’” Ford said. “So what do you do when there’s no archives?”
Research was difficult, and the process took years to go through, but Ford had a story to tell. It wasn’t her story, but she felt responsible, and she knew how to reach the voices who could tell it best.
Ford researched extensively online, listened to oral histories, conducted interviews, traveled to watch and engage with rodeo participants, and looked at many newspapers from across the nation. She got to see old photographs that don’t exist in textbooks and didn’t make the newspapers.
Remembering back to a summer she spent working on the book, Ford said she spent 10 to 12 hours a day reading online archives, taking notes, “clicking and dragging.” She spent that summer at home, sitting at an old desk that used to be her grandmother’s before she died.
Sitting at a historic desk, a historian gathered the stories that needed to be told — stories she found entertaining, but stories she also knew people could learn from. The countless hours her mouse moved back and forth across the desk wore down the varnish, which her mother wasn’t too happy about.
Ford made a point for her book to expand beyond women in rodeo, to include Black rodeo, gay rodeo, Native American rodeo, Hawaiian rodeo and the Charreada, a Mexican rodeo. Forms of these rodeos go on to be “living history,” an artform that continues to incorporate historical tools and methods in today's shows. The overarching theme Ford discusses throughout the book is looking at each form of rodeo comparatively, distinguishing each for their unique qualities.
“When you look at participation in all of those rodeos, then you see why there are still these separate rodeos when segregation is no longer a thing,” Ford said.
The challenging part of this, though, was because Ford researched five different types of rodeo; it was essentially writing five different books and squeezing them into one.
Initially, Ford wanted to focus on nonwhite women in the 1910s and 1920s, specifically, which was the height of women in rodeo. But the trail for this research turned up cold, and Ford had to broaden her focus. Even so, this situation turned out for the better, she said.
“The book wouldn’t be what it is now if that decision wasn’t made,” Ford said.
Ford, who joined Northwest faculty in 2011, traveled extensively to talk to as many people as she could for the book, diving into the roots of rodeo in Hawaii and giving voices to those less heard. The connections she made stretching as far as the beachfront rodeo across the sea are something she said will stick with her going forward.
“I was able to speak to people from founding ranching families and people who started rodeo there,” Ford said. “Or like, this woman’s mother was the first female working cowgirl in Hawaii.”
“So that was really amazing to talk to those people and for them to be willing to talk to an outsider,” Ford said. “Like, I’m not Hawaiian, and I’m white. So it’s great that people are still willing to share that story with someone who is very — and I don’t do rodeo — very much an outsider of that world.”
Ford said she is planning on co-authoring another book that focuses solely on gay rodeo, which has an approximate timeline of about three years to publication. Even beyond this collaboration, her work to share unheard voices isn’t finished, she said.
“It just reminds you that there’s so many stories that still need told, and I hope more people go out there and talk to these people, research their history and tell these stories,” Ford said.