FORT PIERRE, S.D. — Race lovers, rejoice. Equestrianism is coming back to Fort Pierre this June. No, it’s not the betting, Kentucky Derby-style horse races that Fort Pierre had previously hosted for some 70 years. It’s a style of race simultaneously newer and far, far older.
It's a race with deep roots in the cultures of the Great Plains. For the first time in Fort Pierre’s history, the storied sport of Indian Relay is coming to the Stanley County Fairgrounds.
“I think with such a high Indian population here in South Dakota, we should try to grow the sport here,” said Calvin Ghost Bear, Oglala Lakota Nation member and the president of Horse Nations Indian Relay Council.
The HNIRC first approached the Stanley County Fairgrounds in Fort Pierre — centrally located for many Sioux Nation tribes — to act as a venue three years ago, Fairgrounds manager Scott Deal said. Attempts to hold the races there fell apart in previous years, Deal said, due to disagreements over funding. But after a new round of negotiations earlier this year, a deal was finally struck.
The result is the “Tour of Champions Indian Relay Races: Sioux Nation Challenge,” to be held on Saturday and Sunday, June 29-30. Multiple relays will be held, from the veteran Chief Race to a children’s Youth Relay.
“They’re doing all the sponsorships; they’re taking care of everything,” Deal said of the HNIRC. “All we’re doing is providing them a space to race.”
Indian Relay, Ghost Bear said, is a sport that encapsulates the centuries-old horse culture of many Native American tribes of the Great Plains. While the HNIRC as an organization is only three years old, Ghost Bear said the relays themselves have going on for a long time.
“Indian Relay goes back hundreds of years,” he said. “All the Plains Tribes have their own version.”
In the version the Council promotes, up to five teams, each consisting of a rider, a "mugger," two "holders’" and three horses, compete to finish first over a series of three-lap heats. At the end of each lap, the rider — who’s riding bareback — must dismount his spent horse, which the mugger than wrangles off the track. He then remounts a fresh horse, held ready for him by the holders, to start the next lap.
With so much commotion of men and horses, it’s very possible for team members to get hurt. But for a shot at glory and occasionally some hefty prize money, Ghost Bear said, it’s worth it.
The relay is also a boon for Fort Pierre and the Fort Pierre tourism board. When the Verendrye Benevolent Society announced in March that no horse races would take place in Fort Pierre in 2019, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth by local racing fans. Fort Pierre officials also voiced their disappointment at the cancellation.
“It was a big disappointment to lose it,” Fort Pierre Mayor Gloria Hanson said. “[Horse racing] was a long-standing tradition, and it was sad to see it go.”
Hosting the Indian Relay may help the town recoup, economically and socially, from that loss, Hanson said.
“I certainly hope so,” she said, when asked if the relays might become a yearly event in Fort Pierre. “I’m extremely excited to see it.”
While the Sioux Nation Challenge races kick off at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Fort Pierre Tourism spokeswoman Sunny Hannum said there will be a barbecue to welcome the riders on Friday evening, June 28. The riding teams will begin arriving Wednesday, June 26, some from tribes as far away as Oregon, Washington state and Canada.
Ghost Bear said the Sioux Nation Challenge wasn’t just a fun summertime sport event, but a chance to help the Indigenous people of South Dakota revive and enjoy their own traditions.
“We hope the community grasps what we’re doing… Promoting and advancing the horse culture among Indian Country,” he said.