Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo
by Nancy Bo Flood, Photography by Jan Sonnenmair
Picture book, Ages 8 and up
Boyds Mill Press/Wordsong, 2013
Junior Library Guild Selection
Have you ever opened a book just because you’re curious? Maybe the title or the cover grabs your attention. Isn’t it often a question that makes you open to the first page? Hmmm…what’s this about?
That’s what happened to me with Cowboy Up!
I like the phrase: cowboy up. It’s one we sometimes use in our family to mean something on the order of: stand here and face the true moment. You can’t duck out, but you’re not alone.
When I first opened this picture book by Nancy Bo Flood and Jan Sonnenmair, I was thinking of my family and how we help each other to keep on keeping on. I didn’t expect but found a whole universe inside that revolves around families and animals and how we can support and encourage each other to do our best.
Cowboy Up! weaves poetry, photography, documentary, and inspiration into a book that unfolds as a day in the life at the Navajo rodeo. From the night-before-nerves to first gathering to mutton busting, from barrel racing to midway eats to heading home, Cowboy Up! is pure joy. – Gigi
Author Nancy Bo Flood on Cowboy Up!
Gigi: How did the idea for Cowboy Up! originate?
Nancy: I was standing along the railing of the “backyard” rodeo arena near our house on the Navajo Reservation watching young women practice racing and spinning around barrels. THAT’s what I wanted to do, gallop full-out and spin around those barrels. The lines of the first poem sang out: “I want to be a rodeo rider.” The words kept jingling in my head. What a fun challenge to write about rodeo, I thought, so each time I was at a rodeo, I tried to capture the rhythm and excitement of each event.
Gigi: All of the elements of the book combine beautifully to give a reading experience that makes you feel like you’re part of a Navajo rodeo: the poetry, the announcer’s dialogue, the prose about each event, and the intimate close-up photos. I really love the structure of the book. It gives kids a lot to explore. Did you know immediately that the book would take on this form?
Nancy: I had no idea what form this book would take. At first all I had was a handful of poems. I took an extra semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts to work with poet, Julie Larios, to learn about writing poetry and creating a collection with “story.” Here on the Reservation, I hung around every kind of local rodeo, arriving early to watch the families, horses and rough stock arrive. I loved roaming around the “getting ready” areas and watch the competitors brush down horses and especially the young bull riders (some are only 12 years old) oil their gear, wrap their wrists, stretch their muscles. Of course the most fun was climbing up on the fence rails with the little kids to watch the 3 and 4 year olds get ready to wooly ride. I talked with worried parents, old-time announcers, and excited young wranglers. Back in my office I searched the Internet for information and came across Jan Sonnenmair’s gallery site. Jan captured with her camera the images I imagined in the book – close-ups that showed the spirit of rodeo – from a little kid practicing lassoing his backyard practice bull, to the courage, excitement, the love of riding one’s horse. My amazing editor, Marcia Leonard, guided the creation of the flow and continuity. When she suggested we introduce each event with voice of the announcer just like at a rodeo, I went back the rodeo arena to capture that unique voice.
Gigi: My favorite spread in Cowboy Up! is pages 10-11. This section is all about the multiple generations that participate in Navajo rodeos. You open with the poem, “That’s My Grandpa.” This sentence, coming along after your moving poem, really choked me up: “Navajo rodeo is a family affair.” Can you tell me more about the family aspects of the rodeo, including how families bond with the horses and other rodeo animals? What roles does the rodeo play in Navajo families today?
Nancy: Many Navajo families are “rodeo” or ranching families – for generations. My favorite part of being at a rodeo is watching everyone arrive in a packed pick-up truck pulling a trailer full of horses and gear and then everyone gets busy helping. Kids hop out. Horses are unloaded. Grandma might begin braiding a granddaughter’s hair; an uncle helps brush down a horse; Dad starts adjusting bridle and reins or tighten up a cinch. Mom carefully checks over the entry cards. One wonderful example, a couple of years ago, 10-year old Faith Holyan stole the show at the 64th Navajo Nation Fair Rodeo. She became the champion women’s barrel racer in the very arena named after her grandfather.
Little ones begin riding even before they can walk, perched atop a horse, riding bare-back, snuggled in front of Mom, Dad or Grandma. The learning of “rodeo skills” isn’t necessarily for competing in rodeo, but learning how to handle and take care of horses, cattle, and other livestock. Navajo grandmothers still go out riding horseback into the canyons or up on the mesas to shepherd sheep or goats. It is a beautiful sight to look across an open mesa and see the lone figure of a grandma on her pinto slowly moving her herd from one grazing area to another. Rodeo is the celebration of showing off one’s skills in handling one’s horse, roping cattle, catching a run-away steer, or taking care of livestock. Rodeo is also the celebration of many values and traditions of the Navajo culture.
Gigi: Cowboy Up! also taught me that at the Navajo rodeo, kids of all ages compete. You even compare the rodeo to little league baseball. Are kids taught and coached in family settings or are there mutton riding and bronc riding lessons? [Is that a goofy question?]
Nancy: Not a goofy question at all! Ranch kids begin learning as soon as they begin walking – how to sit on a horse, balance, interact, not be afraid. By the time they are three they are lassoing each other, chasing after sheep, hopping a ride on a calf, falling off, trying again. But if you are not a ranch kid, there are families that say, “come on over, we’ll be practicing calf roping tonight.” Rob Taylor is one example of someone who understands the healing power of working with animals. Rob works at the Chinle Hospital during the day and then does an afterschool “rodeo school” at his ranch in the evening. He works with students with special needs as well as teens in legal trouble. There is a lot of “therapy” for anyone learning about one’s own strengths – facing fears and gaining self-confidence – while working with animals.
Gigi: What is your favorite event at the rodeo? Have you ever competed in a rodeo event?
Nancy: I have two favorite events: mutton-busting, wooly riding little ones holding on tight, trying to stay on top a bucking, dodging sheep. There is nothing like seeing that great big grin on the face of a successful rider. Second favorite event – two really, watching the skill of young cowgirl guide her racing horse around barrels; and then team roping, such timing and knowing your own horse while racing to rope a run-away steer, snagging the head or the heels, as part of a roping team. The teams are often father and son or a pair of brothers.
My dream as a kid was to have my own horse and be able to ride it bareback, jump over ditches and gallop across an open field. Finally after I was grown up I did just that. I love being around horses, even just give them a grooming or a rub behind their ears. I wish I were young enough, skilled and strong enough to do rodeo. Yep, “I want to be a rodeo rider.”
Gigi: I thought it was awesome how in the middle of the book you took an intermission along the Midway Walk for Midway Eats! Last summer driving through New Mexico, my daughter and I followed signs for frybread but didn’t end up finding any. It sounds scrumptious the way you describe it: “crisp, hot frybread, grease still popping, sweet honey oozing.” Do you remember the first time you ever ate frybread?
Nancy: Frybread – plucked hot from the popping oil – is delicious. The first time I tasted it was at a local rodeo. My favorite is frybread served at the Tsegi Canyon Restaurant, half-way between the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, near Kayenta and Tuba City. Their frybread is crisp and light. Add a big scoop of vanilla ice cream….oh my! Slides right down.
Gigi: Did you interview children and families to learn more about the rodeo tradition? What kind of research did you do for the book?
Nancy: I went to a hundred rodeos. Or more. Just ask my husband. He came to most of them and many of the backyard rodeos were a challenge to find – one has to take a lot of wrong turns on dusty gravel roads. Of course, we also had to sample a lot of fry bread as well as Navajo tacos, mutton stew, and in between, talk with the riders, the stock handlers, the grandmas, grandpas, and rodeo queens and often whomever I was standing next to. Seriously, I interviewed everyone I could who was part of rodeo. I watched competitors get ready and then circled around back to watch the broncos and bulls as they milled around in their corrals. Of course I also researched information available both in books and on the Internet. Sometimes information was hard to get, for example, there are contradictory statistics about Bodacious and just how dangerous a bull he was. For sure, he was one bad bull that hardly any wrangler – even the best – rode to the full eight-second count.
Gigi: The photography by Jan Sonnenmair is so striking and personal. I have to say, the endpaper, which is a collage of Navajo rodeo kids, framing your poem, “Rodeo Rider” is just incredible. The images capture the rodeo and deepen the experience of reading your poetry. Did you and Jan work together on shooting the rodeo images, selecting, and arranging them?
Nancy: The endpaper photo gallery was entirely Jan’s idea. She asked young competitors when they were practicing after school or at rodeos after their events for a “special photo opp.” Boyds Mills Press agreed to give the idea a try. The designer put the images together with the intro poem. I agree, I think the collage of faces invites the reader to step right in, get a close-up look, and see the pure excitement on those faces, every one so unique. You just have to smile right back and hopefully, turn the page and hear “cowboy up, ride the Navajo rodeo.”
- Photography by Jan Sonnenmair. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Gigi: What are you working on now?
Nancy: One of my concerns is that many books for children about Navajo or other Native Americans show them as “history” rather than who they are as individuals, not stereotyped, and how they live and work today. Native Americans are leaders in every aspect of American life. I am compiling an anthology of biographies of outstanding Native Americans. The first two books in this project acquired by Fulcrum Publishers, Inc., will highlight artists, authors, athletes (including rodeo) and performers. Later books will include statesmen, activists, scientists (including the first Native astronaut), warrior-heroes, educators, and so on.
Thank you, Nancy! I really enjoyed your book and learning more about how you wrote Cowboy Up!
Nancy Bo Flood lives and teaches on the Navajo Reservation where she hikes, rides her bike and attends local rodeos. She is the author of several award-winning books including Navajo Year, Walk Through Many Seasons and Warriors in the Crossfire. Recent titles are No-Name Baby and Cowboy Up, Ride the Navajo Rodeo. Visit Nancy: www.nancyboflood.com