It's been called "The Deadliest Horse Race in the World" and it's right here in Washington!
Each year in mid summer, a small town in Eastern Washington State, called Omak, proudly promotes an event named "The World-Famous Suicide Race." Town officials claim this event (created to as a draw for the town's annual rodeo) is a celebration of history and tradition. In reality, it's murder on horses. The race seriously injures riders and routinely kills horses.
Over a span of four days and nights, riders repeatedly run their horses off Suicide Hill with a 120-foot galloping start. Horses blindly plunge more than 210 feet down a slope that event organizer's often boast as an "almost vertical... 62-degree angle." At breakneck speed, the horses then meet the Okanogan River. Entry into the river is narrow, causing bottlenecks and horrendous multiple-horse spills. If rider and horse do make it to the, they face a treacherous and often panicked swim about the length of a football field. The final grueling sprint is a 500-foot uphill climb to the finish line.
The horses—many 'on-loan' for the event—have suffered heart attacks from over exertion, broken bones from shocking collisions and tumbles, and even horrifying death by drowning.
It is unclear how many horses or people have died in the race since its inception in 1935. Since 1983, at least 22 horse deaths have been documented. In 2004, three horses were killed in the first heat alone.
Marketing gimmick or tradition?
First run in 1935, the Suicide Race was the brainchild of Claire Pentz, publicity chairman for the Stampede, after failing to attract big crowds with boxing, trained zebras and stock car racing.
Stampede organizers currently contend that the Suicide Race has roots in Native American tradition but in fact, an Anglo conceived the race as a publicity stunt. Race organizers claim it is a customary rite-of-passage. This can be negated by two facts:
- The races that used to occur among Native tribes of the area were longer-distance, cross-country races on horses bred to thrive on the hard, rocky, desert terrain of Eastern Washington. This is not comparable to flinging a long-legged thoroughbred or quarter horse down a 62-degree slope in the dark of night.
- A native rite-of-passage traditionally refers to a ritual or ceremony indicating the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Historically, Suicide Race rider's ages range from 18 to well into the 30's. Many have ridden in the race year after year seeking cash and popularity, not cultural fulfillment.
Native American traditions teach respect not exploitation
The 12 bands that compose the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are the Chelan, the Colville, the Entiat, the Lake, the Methow, the Moses-Columbia, the Nespelem, the Nez Perce of Chief Joseph's band, the Okanogan, the Palus, the San Poil and the Wenatchee. These tribes came from across the Western United States and their histories and customs teach of the reverence and respect given to the animals of our land, from salmon and whales to horses, wolves and bears, which are central to the Native American belief system.
"Of all the animals the horse is the best friend of the Indian, for without it he could not go on long journeys. A horse is the Indian's most valuable piece of property. If an Indian wishes to gain something, he promises that if the horse will help him he will paint it with native dye, that all may see that help has come to him through the aid of his horse." - Brave Buffalo (late 19th century) Teton Sioux medicine man
"The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth. Man does not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family." - Chief Sealth (Seattle)
"The four-leggeds and the wings of the air and the mother earth were supposed to be relative-like... The first thing an Indian learns is to love each other and that they should be relative-like to the four-leggeds" - Black Elk, Lakota medicine man
Contemporary leaders such as Winona LaDuke tell us that "Native American teachings describe the relations all around-animals, fish, trees and rocks-as our brothers, sisters, uncles and grandpas...These relations are honored in ceremony, song, story and life that keep relations close-to buffalo, sturgeon, salmon, turtles, bears, wolves, and panthers. These are our older relatives-the ones who came before and taught us how to live."
With this information, who can really believe the claim that this race is tradition? It may have been based on an idea of an old tradition, but in its current form is nothing more than abuse and exploitation.