Yee-haw

APART from the Missy Elliot and Ludacris songs that blare through the speakers in lieu of country tunes, the Bill Pickett Invitational sounds and looks like a typical rodeo. In the dirt arena cowboys and cowgirls cling to bucking broncos. They rope calves and weave in and out of barrels. The stands are packed with fans decked out in cowboy hats and boots who nibble at barbecued chicken and gasp when riders are thrown to the ground. At half-time there is “mutton busting”, an event in which small children are plonked onto the backs of sheep and ordered to hang on as their fuzzy mounts dart around the ring. The biggest difference is that all the contestants—and most of the audience—are black.

The Bill Pickett Invitational, which performed in Denver on Martin Luther King Day and will visit five other places this year, is America’s only touring black rodeo. It was founded in 1984 by Lu Vason, a music-industry promoter, after he attended a rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and “didn’t see a single rider who looked like him”, recalls Valeria Vason-Cunningham, who has run the rodeo since her husband’s death in 2015. Vason decided to name the rodeo after Bill Pickett. Born in 1870 in Texas, Pickett was the son of a freed slave who invented the sport of steer wrestling, or “bulldogging”. Pickett would gallop after a cow on his horse, spring off, draw the cow’s face into his own face by its horns, and latch his teeth into its lip as he had seen herder dogs do. The bite would confuse the steer, allowing Pickett to pull it over with just his jaw, his hands held skyward.

Pickett went on to perform with the likes of Buffalo Bill and Will Rogers under the stage-name of “The Dusky Deamon”; he was the first black man ever admitted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. But whereas Pickett’s talent was rare, black cowboys during his era were not. They were fundamental to the settling of the West, both as slaves and freedmen. In the first half of the 19th century, white Americans in search of cheap land flocked to Texas, which was then Spanish and, after 1821, a Mexican territory. Some brought slaves with them to work their newly established cotton farms and cattle ranches. After slavery was abolished, ranchers hired their former slaves as paid workers.

Black people from the east also flocked west, keen to cash in on the booming ranching industry. “Ranching work was challenging, manly and allowed black people to make as much as whites. It allowed them to do something that gave their families some measure of equality,” says William Loren Katz, author of “The Black West” and 40 other books on African-American history. Historians estimate that of the 35,000 cowboys who ranged the West between 1866 and 1895, at the height of the cattle industry, between 5,000 and 9,000 were black.

During the Jim Crow era blacks were shut out of most rodeos. The cowboys in the novels and films that familiarised the rest of America with the West were almost always white. Without venues to compete in or stars to inspire young black cowboys, the tradition eroded. As Ms Vason-Cunningham waits for the Bill Pickett rodeo to begin, she estimates that fewer than 5% of cowboys in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the country’s largest rodeo organisation, are black. The organisation says it does not track the ethnicities of its riders, though it does ask about their favourite food: “I can tell you that for 99% of them it’s steak.”

Appropriately, the first event of the night in Denver is steer wrestling. Before entering the arena, Tory Johnson, a 32-year-old from Oklahoma City, secures his cowboy hat, shifts his weight from side to side in his stirrups and tightens his grip on the reins. He takes a deep breath and gives a subtle nod. The gates spring open. On a golden Palomino with a flowing mane and thick white blaze, Mr Johnson explodes forward into the dirt arena in pursuit of a steer that has been released in front of him. He tips off his mount until his arms are locked around the steer’s neck; then he kicks both feet out of his stirrups, leans into the steer and wrestles it to the ground—with no use of teeth, it should be noted. The whole ordeal takes 5.6 seconds.