A’AGA: Something to be told

November 4, 2016


By Billy Allen


An ancient name for November was S-oam or Yellow however Antonio Azul called it Vi-ihainyik or Windy. An earlier and different name for our southern cousins was Papago.


In a previous article, I had written how Pa:l Kino first drove livestock into present-day Arizona which prompted the first O’odham, probably Papago, to straddle a horse and be a vakial or vaquero or cowboy. Sala Hina, an elderly informant for Frank Russell in 1901-1902, stated her father and two Kohadk were responsible for bringing the first cattle to Gila River around 1820.


It did not take long to mix chili with beef and our culture was changed for the better!


An O’otham holiday season without turkey, ham or tamales is unthinkable. Be thankful this holiday season for O’otham cultures being flexible, adopting from the surrounding cultures to make our lives better.


When the Bureau of Indian Affairs allowed tribal councils to be officially formed, one of the first actions the Papago Council enacted was to establish a Rodeo and Fair Association in 1937 and soon with the Papago Cattlemen’s Association the first rodeo was held in 1938. (The Papago Tribal Council officially changed their name back to Tohono O’odham in 1986. It was confusing to be known by two different names.)


Some of the early events were football games and social dancing including an e:da vop po tham and a ke:hi-na, the skipping dance. Horse races ranging from a quarter to two miles and a pony express race; walking the horse for a quarter of a mile, trotting a quarter and finishing with a full quarter mile gallop. Foot racing was also popular.


Races as short as 100 yards to a wui chu tha race which covered very long distances. Historically it was a run from village to village.


A unique event was a novelty dress race; a mounted a cowboy raced his horse a quarter of a mile, dismounted, dressed in clothes placed on the ground and rode back to the finish. A few of these events still go on today such as women’s to:ka, the wild horse and half-marathon races.


Another popular event was a special bareback riding contest, riders would put money down and whoever stayed on board for 8 seconds won all the money. Within the Indian circuit the deadly attraction was Black Widow.


It was advertised as a “horse that could not be rode”. Naturally this aroused the warrior spirit of the Native cowboy, for most of them felt they were “the cowboy who couldn’t be throwed.”


On Memorial Day of 1956, at the Salt River InterTribal Roundup, a young vakial out of Casa Blanca mounted Black Widow and wasn’t “throwed.” He collected $15 in addition to the money won from the bareback completion.


This twenty-three year old vakial was a working ranch hand with four children and quickly making a name for himself on the Arizona Indian rodeo circuit. Growing up on the Gila River Indian Community in the late 1930’s, on the family dairy, he came to know horses and cattle from an early age.


He and his twin sister spent time in Blackwater when they and their older brother were sent to help a grandfather run his small ranch. Upon the old man’s death the entire family pitched-in to herd the livestock to Casa Blanca.


A few elders remember the Black Widow as a demon horse. Another elder remembers a relative asking the young vakial not to go to the rodeo. When this young Vahki bareback rider arrived for the Papago Rodeo in November of 1956, the Black Widow was taking on all riders.


This vakial figured “rode him hemako, ride him twice.” Luck was not with Earl Thomas in 1956.


He left behind a wife, Ethelyn and four children, children he would be proud of; Delphia Graves, Erwin Thomas, Glenda Fifer and Gwendolyn Thomas. Earl and twin sister Earline Manuel, who lives in Salt River and older brother Ralston Allen were raised in Casa Blanca by Arthur and Julia Thomas.


Be thankful this holiday season for life is precious.