WOLF POINT, Mont. — Cowboys lined the metal chutes that released bucking horses and their riders into the arena, Miss Rodeo Montana signed autographs for fans, and coronavirus warning signs ended with “Face mask usage is of personal choice.”

Most of the rodeo riders and audience at the Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede appeared to skip masks, despite public health recommendations and increasing pressure to stem the spread of COVID-19 cases spiking across Montana and much of the U.S.

“A lot of people, they’re trying to get back to life as normal,” said stampede competitor Dillon McPherson, from Wolf Point. “Having the rodeo is important to life as normal, or as close as it can be.”

Rodeos are a summertime staple across the West, but the pandemic has presented a dilemma for cities and towns dependent on the economic and cultural boost the events give.

A smaller crowd than in previous years turned out for the Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede in Wolf Point, Montana, held this year July 9-11. But the event offered a semblance of life as it was before the pandemic.(Katheryn Houghton for KHN)

Some decided the risk was too great. In Wyoming, Cheyenne Frontier Days — known as “the Daddy of Them All” — was called off for the first time after 123 years. But organizers of the rodeo in Wolf Point decided to carry on, despite the initial opposition of the tribal leaders of the Fort Peck Reservation, which covers the town of 3,000.

Roosevelt County, a remote stretch of the Great Plains where Wolf Point is located, has seen relatively few COVID-19 cases — just nine of Montana’s 2,200 as of Wednesday . But tribal leaders feared the stampede, the oldest professional rodeo in the state and one of the region’s top annual draws, could lead to an outbreak.

In Montana, COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Native Americans, who make up roughly 7% of the state’s population. At least 204 confirmed cases — 11% of the state total — are among Native Americans, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. And Native Americans make up 37% of the state’s COVID deaths.

Rising caseloads in the state prompted Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday to make face masks mandatory in counties with four or more active cases.

Just days before, organizers of the rodeo said the event followed the latest county health safety recommendations.

“The virus is always going to be a concern,” said Nicole Paulson, with the stampede committee. “Everyone has their own opinions, and we’ve listened. We feel like we have done every precaution we could to make this event happen safely.”

Terrance Gourneau Sr., a 52-year-old member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, was among those who wanted the event canceled. He said he was worried about his 80-year-old mom who lives down the road and his first grandchild on the way.

“I have few fears, but I am scared of this virus,” he said. “I’m scared that I will lose one of my children or my family. If the virus runs its course here, I’m scared of the devastation it will cause.”

Signs at the stadium’s entrance issue health tips and say, “Face mask usage is of personal choice.” Sanitizing stations were scattered throughout the facility.(Katheryn Houghton for KHN)

Not everyone shared those fears. Another Fort Peck Tribes member, 49-year-old William Ricker, said the pandemic felt far away. He’d sat in the same row for the annual stampede for most of his life, and the coronavirus wasn’t going to stop that. Ricker’s grandfather raised bucking horses and he himself rode in wild horse races as a younger man.

“I wait all year to come to the rodeo. It’s all part of growing up in this life,” Ricker said from the event’s stands.

In June, the Fort Peck Tribes voted to oppose holding the rodeo this year. Tribal leaders dropped their funding for the event, prohibited their departments from participating and advised tribal members not to go.

Days before the three-day rodeo began July 9, county, tribal and stampede committee officials tried to come up with a compromise. Organizers agreed to cancel the parades and festivities that usually accompany the event — but the rodeo would go on.

State leaders have said enforcing the governor’s directives to slow the spread of the coronavirus falls to county governments. Roosevelt County Attorney Austin Knudsen, a Republican candidate for Montana attorney general, said he doesn’t think it’s the county’s place to block events on private land. The Wild Horse Stampede is a local chamber of commerce event on chamber property.

“We may be going through a pandemic, but I don’t see anywhere in the First Amendment that says ‘unless we’re afraid that someone’s going to get sick,’” Knudsen said.

None of the tribal executive board’s 15 members responded to requests for an interview for this story. During a State-Tribal Relations Committee meeting in June, Fort Peck Tribes council member Kaci Wallette said, “We know the cowboys are going to be coming from states that do have cases and big outbreaks.”

The rodeo drew more than 500 participants, from as far as North Carolina, Washington state and Canada. Fewer rodeos this year means higher turnouts of competitors as professional cowboys travel wherever they can earn a score and some cash.

Cowboys release bucking horses and riders at the Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede in Wolf Point, Montana. The stampede, an annual event on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, attracted a higher turnout of cowboys this year because the pandemic reduced the number of rodeos. Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes had pulled their support for the event, fearing it could cause a COVID outbreak among their members.(Katheryn Houghton for KHN)

Contestants got their temperature checked before entering the grounds and couldn’t cross into the fans’ side of the stadium.

There were more empty seats in the stadium than usual. Signs at the entrance warned attendees that they were entering at their own risk and to turn back if they had symptoms of an infectious disease.

Caution tape blocked off seating to clusters of 50. Some stepped over the yellow warning to find seats and greet friends. Kids played with spray bottles filled with hand sanitizer stationed throughout the grounds.

The tension over what the rodeo might bring besides a much-needed economic boost was evident in downtown Wolf Point. Several businesses taped the stampede’s schedule to their windows, while at least one shut down as a precaution. A bar hung a banner welcoming rodeo fans, while another next door closed early each night to avoid post-rodeo crowds.

Anna Bissonette, a member of the Fort Peck Tribes, and her husband, Trini Bissonette, of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, set up a booth to sell their beadwork to the people headed to the rodeo. They understand the risks — he’s in his 50s, and she’s in her 60s and has diabetes — but they needed the income the rodeo brings.

“Things have been so shut down we’re barely hanging on,” Trini Bissonette said. “You sit at home to stop the spread of COVID-19. But then you’re watching your bills go up. What can you do?”

Roosevelt County Commissioner Gordon Oelkers, who serves on the county’s board of health, said it’s possible COVID-19 cases will arrive that trace back to the weekend, “but we won’t know the outcome for another couple of weeks.”

“You could ‘what if’ this pandemic to death. You just got to do whatever you feel comfortable with,” Oelkers said. “We need to start moving on as safe as we can. The rodeo is a risk, but it’s a personal choice whether people go.”

Next week, the Fort Peck Tribes plan to partner with the state to host a mass COVID-19 testing event, which may determine what the rodeo left behind.

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