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Queens of the West
The real stories of rodeo's royalty, richly told
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In 1952, the year she was queen of the Pendleton Round-Up, Leah presented a wool blanket to President Harry S. Truman as part of the many promotional duties rodeo royalty performed. For the presentation, Leah wore fake braids to cover up her modern haircut. Descended from the bands of Nez Perce Indians who refused to sell or cede their homelands to white settlers, Leah grew up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon. She believes she was chosen queen because she was "an Indian in college" at Willamette University - respectable enough for white society. In the early days of rodeo, queens came from varied backgrounds, but after 1953, there was no Indian queen for decades.
Nations make up stories about themselves. Britain's self-image is sea-going empire, France is revolution and refinement, Israel, post-Holocaust exodus.

America's story is The West. The frontier began to be wrapped in myth almost from the moment it was pronounced closed, and for the past hundred years an overlapping layer of Wild West shows, dime novels, movies and television (by the 1960s, 30 of the prime-time shows were Westerns) have given the United States its historic identity. Even today's "Star Wars"-type science fiction and superhero movies echo Western themes.

East of the Cascades, the story of man's subjugation of unruly nature is played out each summer in rodeos that are as stylized and ritualistic as a bullfight or Kabuki opera. There are 43 officially sanctioned rodeos in the Northwest alone each year.

Livestock is provoked into frenzy, cowboys risk life and limb for eight-second glory, groupies dubbed "buckle bunnies" (for the males' big rodeo buckles) provide the sexual tension, and regal femininity is represented by Rodeo Queens.

This rhinestone royalty might seem an unlikely subject for a book on the modern West. Yet Washington State University academic Joan Burbick, a Chicago native, has used the stories of Pacific Northwest women to tap a unique vein of regional history in her new "Rodeo Queens and the American Dream" (PublicAffairs Books, $26).

Do these women, today competing in Las Vegas costumes that can cost more than $15,000 (and are light-years away from real pioneer garb), have anything interesting to say? You bet they do, and Burbick's achievement is getting this fascinating subculture to open up about their changing lives: in part by identifying the women only by first name.

"A lot of the stories told about the West have silenced what's really going on in the West," the professor of American and Women's Studies said. "These Rodeo Queens were really welcoming — maybe because no one's ever been interested in them before."

This is Burbick's third book, but the first aimed at a general audience. She combines the stories of past queens with a cultural history of the 20th-century West and her own personal reactions, producing an account of the Pacific Northwest somewhat different than anything done before. Cutting quickly from hardscrabble ranches to Hollywood movies to the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas, she jams together the kind of cultural information that doesn't seem to fit anywhere else.

Burbick, 56, spent childhood vacations on Colorado horses and has been riding for decades. She and her husband, Alex Kuo, taught Native American writer Sherman Alexie at WSU, and she retains a strong interest in Indian culture and history. But her initial decision to come to Pullman in 1978, after an Ivy League education, dumbfounded her peers.

"My friends on the East Coast thought I was crazy," she recalls. "In the 1970s, Seattle and the Northwest weren't the romantic destination they would become."

She came anyway, for the landscape and its horse culture. Inevitably she found herself at rodeos. Who were these women with the outdated Farrah Fawcett curls, bleached buckskin fringes and high-crowned Stetsons with tiaras?

Burbick began interviewing. And instead of finding bouffant airheads, she met Rodeo Queens from different decades who have struggled to keep ranching alive, integrate cowboy and Indian culture, define a proper role for women in a male-dominated sport, and adjust to the increasing commercialization of rodeo.

"Rodeo queens lived at a junction between the myths of the West and the heartbreaking reality of ordinary life," she writes. They glamorized the grim.
Photo spacer A few years after becoming rodeo queen for a small Oregon town, Joan wore guns and leather chaps at the request of a local newspaper looking to portray the modern "cowgirl." The image was all for show, Joan said in her interview with WSU professor Joan Burbick. It was the first time this Western queen had ever held a six-shooter, she said, even though she grew up on an Oregon ranch. Her childhood was spent on horseback, wandering the hills with her sisters. But it was not the life she dreamed of, and she left the ranch as soon as she could. Most young women became rodeo royalty because their fathers were on the rodeo board, but her dad had died, so she was "discovered" after she moved to town and started playing piano in a local band. spacer spacer spacer Photo spacer Author Joan Burbick, professor of American and Women's Studies at Washington State University, traveled the Pacific Northwest to find the subjects for "Rodeo Queens." She got them to open up, in part, by agreeing to use only their first names.

The Rodeo Queen world was never a beauty pageant, though royalty was almost invariably made up of young women. They tended to come from well-known local families and exhibited good skill with horses, galloping at opening ceremonies and sometimes competing in agility rides such as barrel racing.

Burbick's favorite story, and one of the most affecting chapters in the book, is the story of Patti, a Nez Perce "Indian Princess" at Oregon's Chief Joseph Days in 1952. Recruited by actor Walter Brennan for her singing ability, she ultimately went to New York City to promote rodeo, where she was bluntly told she was a "commodity," a racial curiosity, and "too sultry" for the Howdy Doody show. Despite her best efforts, she could not bridge the gap between white and Indian either in New York or northeastern Oregon, and her matter-of-fact assessment of her role is thoughtful and real.

There's Maxine, struggling to keep a ranch down Rattlesnake Grade alive. Blanche, a kind of female "horse whisperer" dismayed at the rodeo's stylized breaking of animals. Leah, another former "Indian Princess" and queen who left rodeo after deciding it no longer fairly represented Indians. And LeAnn of the 1990s, who got so tired of curling her hair for a perfect image that she dyed part of it purple, in secret defiance tucking the strand into her cowboy hat.

Burbick, in other words, turns a stereotype into individuals and portrays them sympathetically, avoiding feminist cant. The result is fresh.

"There's been quite a distancing among academics from things they considered beneath them, in either class or politics," she said. She tried to avoid that. "I hope the book moves readers to think about everyday life in the West — and how to make the West a richer world, humanly."
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.

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