April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

Indian Rodeo on the Navajo Nation

Devyn Dennison, New Mexico Highlands University, USA 


During an internship for the Crownpoint Historical & Cultural Heritage Council in Crownpoint, New Mexico I created a twenty-three minute educational video showcasing Indian Rodeo on the Navajo Nation. The video is comprised of three parts: the first section is entitled, The Sacred Horse: Navajo Perspective, the second section is Ranching Navajo Cowgirls & Cowboys, and the third is Three Generations: Contemporary Indian Rodeo.

I also created an eight-page dynamic Web site to contain the video in its entirety. The Web site will house a flash interactive piece on the anatomy of the horse. This will illustrate the sacred and cultural significances of the horse, as it exists for the Navajo community, making it accessible for students and educators around the world. Once participants select different parts of a horse's anatomy, say the eye, the Dine word appears and that body part's connection to the natural world is shown. For example, the horse's eye is linked to the stars in Navajo culture.  There will also be educational information housed within the Web site showcasing the dynamic identity of the Navajo Culture and the Dine way of life.

Keywords: Indian Rodeo, Dine, education, cultural, interactive


The Navajo Nation is a place where we as Navajo People can celebrate our ideas and our way of life. It is a location not often visited by outsiders. In Navajo culture, the aspiration to be a lifelong learner is cultivated. This Web site was created with that spirit in mind and with the goal to provide access to educational materials for Navajo children and anyone interested in learning about the sacredness of horse and its connection to Indian Rodeo on the Navajo Nation. Both of these areas play key roles in the culture of the Navajo Nation.

Indian Rodeo on the Navajo Nation

Indian Rodeo on the Navajo Nation explores the cultural, traditional, and competitive aspects that inform contemporary Indian rodeo. The target audience is Navajo people across Arizona and New Mexico as well as anyone interested in horses, rodeo, and Navajo culture and Indian Rodeo. The Diné way of life has always involved livestock and animals, and by extension, the sport of Indian rodeo plays an enormous role in the culture of the Navajo People. Indian Rodeo on the Navajo Nation exists as a physical exhibition, making it accessible to the local population in New Mexico, and on the Web, permitting the content to be more globally accessible.

Indian Rodeo on the Navajo Nation is centered around the following sections which are structured into specific links in the Web site: The Sacred Horse: A Navajo Perspective, Ranching: Navajo Cowboys & Cowgirls, and Three Generations of Contemporary Indian Rodeo and its development as a competitive sport. The exhibit, as documented on the Web site, will consists of photos of historical artifacts, photography, and three documentary films comprised of interviews with former and contemporary Navajo rodeo athletes. The components within these sections will be used to illustrate how these areas tie into the life of the Diné people on the Navajo Nation.

The Web site component within this exhibition was created to help educate people globally about the true essence of Indian rodeo on the Navajo Nation through access to intimate personal interviews with former and contemporary rodeo stars. Since the Navajo Nation is located in a rural area, the Web is the most effective means in which to educate those from diverse backgrounds about this rich culture.  

The Sacred Horse: a Navajo Perspective

The first section and Web site link, The Sacred Horse: A Navajo Perspective, explores the role of horses in Navajo culture. The Emergence is a sacred creation story that is only transmitted orally. It explains how the Diné people were created as well as how horses came to play such an important role in Navajo culture. In the first world the insect people, known as the Locusts People, started fighting with one another and were instructed by the Holy People to leave. They journeyed to the second world which was the blue world and lived for a time in peace, but eventually they fought with the birds and with each other and were instructed to depart again. In the third world the same thing happened again ,and they were forced to journey to the fourth world.    

In the fourth world, they found the Hopi living there and succeeded in not fighting with one another or their neighbors. Eventually, their bodies were transformed from insect forms to human forms. First Woman-Changing Woman and First Man physically appear in the fourth world and were formed from ears of white and yellow corn. There is a separation of male and female humans because each did not appreciate the contributions of the other, and this laid the groundwork for the appearance of the Monsters that would start to kill off the people in the fifth world.

The Coyote  appears and steals the baby of Water Monster, who brings a great flood into the third world, forcing the humans as well as Holy People to journey to the surface of the fifth world through a hollow reed. Some things are left behind, and some things are brought to help the people re-create the world each time they enter a new one.

Death and the Monsters are born into the fifth world. Changing Woman gives birth to the Hero Twins called Monster Slayer and Child of the Waters, who together have many adventures in which they help to rid the world of much evil. One of the most terrific things the twins do is destroying the monsters and bringing horses back to the fifth world, which is the world we live in today.

According to the creation story, it is said that the Sun is the God who owns all the horses. The horses do not belong to the Navajo people on earth because they are the Sun’s prized possessions. The story of the horse is rooted back to prehistoric times.

The Hero Twins had many adventures. Some of these adventures would be traveling to the Sun, and bringing back the horses to the 5th world. The twins traveled to see their father, the Sun, to obtain a weapon: the bow and arrow. They needed this weapon to destroy the monsters and to provide a safe place for the Navajo people. When they arrived at their father’s home, the Sun asked them what they wanted, and then he opened the doors of his home in all four directions: east, north, west, and south. Once the doors opened, the twins caught a glimpse of all the prosperity and beautiful horses that lay beyond. The twins told their father that they came for the bow and arrow in order to destroy the Monsters and provide a safe place for the Navajo people, but later, they returned to the Sun and brought the horses to the earth.

Since then, the horse is symbolic of sacredness and is considered to be a form of protection in Navajo culture. The traditional values and stories of the Sacred Horse are relevant to Indian Rodeo because the culture of the Diné is primarily centered around livestock and horses. The history of The Sacred Horse: A Navajo Perspective section is illustrated through horse songs, paintings of horses and historical photographs of horses.

As an extension of the creation story, the Diné believe that certain parts of the horse are linked with materials found in nature. The Web portion of this exhibit will have an interactive flash component aimed to teach visitors about these connections. For example, in Navajo culture sandstone is believed to make up a horse's hooves, lightning is linked to the horse's legs, and the stars are said to comprise a horse’s eyes. As the participant rolls t­­heir mouse over certain sections of an outline of a horse, these connections with nature will become evident.  Furthermore, the Diné word for each section of the horse's body will be visible as the viewer rolls over different parts of the horse's anatomy. The goal for this component of the on-line exhibit is to educate participants about Navajo culture and language as it applies to the sacredness of the horse.

This piece takes an interdisciplinary approach to learning. It incorporates history, culture, science and technology into one piece, teaching younger generations the multi-layered values and culture of the Navajo People.

Ranching: Navajo cowboys & cowgirls

The second section and Web site link is be centered around The Ranching: Navajo Cowboys & Cowgirls vignette. This section illustrates the rich history of how the Navajo People developed their ranching techniques. Early on, the Diné learned to manage livestock as a way of life. In the mid 1600’s, the Spanish introduced sheep to the Navajo, and that introduction helped to further their commitment and relationship to animals. This relationship continues even into recent times. The Navajos used sheep and livestock for their well-being. Livestock was also a designation of the wealth of a Navajo. Sheep and goats were used as a food source. They also used their wool or skin for blankets and made yarn for weaving. It is said that all the parts of a sheep were used except for the bones.

One critical historical moment for Navajo’s occurred in the 1930’s when the first stock reductions took place. Stock reduction, due to overgrazing, was ordered by the government. Stock reductions were done by the white governmental rangers that came into Navajo land to reduce sheep and livestock populations. The government rangers would take horses, sheep, and goats away or shoot them in front of their Navajo owners. Since the reservation land is owned by the government, there are limited grazing permits; therefore livestock had to be reduced.

The brutal elimination of these animals affected the Diné people tremendously because we value our livestock highly. Many Diné people during that time were shocked and disappointed at the stock reduction, because of their connection and respect for their livestock and the fact that the number of one’s animals determined the wealth of a family. Still today, livestock are prized highly by the Diné people. Sheep are important because they comprise all aspects of survival. They are a source for food and warmth, which are key aspects in the Diné culture.

This section will include a historical timeline, and a video of contemporary Indian Rodeo athletes as they discuss their struggles and the ranching way of life on the Navajo Nation.

Three generations: contemporary Indian rodeo

The last section, Three Generations: Contemporary Indian Rodeo, outlines the development of Indian rodeo as a competitive sport. Contemporary Indian rodeo is historically rooted in horse racing and wild cow riding competitions that started on the Navajo Indian Reservation in the late 1880s. Rodeos began to develop from these competitions, though the first formally organized Indian Rodeo did not take place until 1957. In the late 1970’s, an organization for Indian rodeo was formed, the Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR). The INFR was created to organize and standardize Indian rodeo across the United States and Canada. INFR drew inspiration from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association; however, the goal was to make Indian rodeo a professional event that would celebrate and share the traditional values and diversity of Indian people from across North America.

One of the first Indian rodeo associations was the All-Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association, which was created in Arizona. Shortly thereafter other associations were formed, such as the Navajo Nation Rodeo Cowboys Association, which was founded in Crownpoint, New Mexico in 1976 and is still affiliated with the INFR today. Over the past forty years, Indian rodeo has grown in scale and has expanded in the United States and Canada where it continues to thrive today.

In this section of the Web site, there will be a timeline showing the history of Indian rodeo. There will also be the last section of the video and the rodeo athletes discussing their personal stories and the meaning of what it feels like to be an Indian Cowboy and a Cowgirl, and the relevance of it relating back into the culture of the Navajo People.

This section of the Web site will explore three generations of Indian rodeo on the Navajo Nation and show the significance of rodeo as it relates to the culture of the Diné People. Rodeo on the Navajo Indian Reservation holds incredible cultural importance, because it is our lifestyle.  We, as Navajo People, are profoundly connected to our livestock and horses; this connection is deeply rooted in the daily lifestyle of our culture and heritage. The primary goal of this exhibit is to educate by celebrating the traditional values and culture of the Navajo People through the exploration of Indian Rodeo on the Navajo Nation.


I would like to acknowledge the support received on this project from New Mexico Highlands University, Crownpoint Historical and Cultural Heritage Council, as well as the following people who participated in the documentary film discussed in this paper: Kassidy Dennison, Kyle Dennison, Alvin Smith, Bennie Begay, Lucy Chayonhto, Marco Sells and Ken White. I would also like to offer thanks for the music support of Rodmilla Cody and Herman Cody.

Cite as:

Dennison, D., Indian Rodeo on the Navajo Nation. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted