PAWS Magazine

Issue 42, Summer 1999

Colville Tribes withdraw from Omak Stampede

by Mike Jones / PAWS Advocate

The decision by the Colville Confederated Tribes to withdraw from the 1999 Omak Stampede could mean not only the end of the Suicide Race as we know it, but the demise of the Stampede as well.

The Colville Business Council, which governs the tribes, voted unanimously July 15 to withdraw from the Stampede. The vote followed years of increasing acrimony between the tribes and the Stampede over a parking dispute and repeated relocation of the Indian Encampment, a cultural attraction of the Stampede staged by the Colvilles.

The Omak City Council had decided to eliminate parking on grassy areas of Eastside Park, site of the Stampede, by 2007. The grass is used for sports fields the rest of the year. Parking on the grass allows more convenient access to the Stampede and the Colvilles’ Indian Encampment.

Eastside Park is on reservation land that the tribes allotted to the city provided the land be maintained as a park.

Omak Stampede Inc. extended its understanding to the Business Council, following Stampede President Fred Winningham’s ultimatum to the city council delivered June 21. In his statement, Winningham said, "The parking issue will, in effect, cause the Stampede to cease to exist. Without parking, we will be unable to welcome the thousands of visitors that attend the Stampede each year."

The Business Council met with riders, horse owners, and others with a financial interest in the Suicide Race in a closed-door meeting July 19. Race participants emerged from the meeting unified with the wishes of the council, having decided to boycott the race.

The vast majority of Suicide Race participants—riders, trainers and owners—are Colville tribal members, with only a few non-natives riding in recent races. The Stampede vowed to carry on with preparation for the race. The deadline for entry was July 30, and a Stampede official said on the day of the private meeting that three or four non-natives had requested entry applications.

Winningham contends canceling the race would spell financial doom to the Stampede. He also signaled a rift among government officials regarding justification for continuing the Suicide Race. In a letter to Business Council Chairwoman Colleen Cawston dated July 19 he added, "Canceling the race would also play into the hands of the people against it—from the animal rights activists to the short-minded people in local government that are unable to see the cultural and social benefits of our event."

At least 13 horses have died as a result of the Suicide Race since 1983.

A call from PAWS to Cawston was not returned, unlike a call to Stampede Vice President "Cactus" Jack Miller. "From the first race, although the race was initially promoted by a non-Indian, it’s always been considered by us to be a native tradition," Miller told PAWS. "I think the position is, we don’t want to put on any goofy, fake thing. We’re not going to put on a hokey race. If it can’t be put on professionally and properly, we won’t do it."

Will the race be run with only three or four entrants? "That depends on who they are," said Miller. "It would be hard to tell a former champion that he can’t race."

The Colville boycott wasn’t the only impediment to the Suicide Race. Miller said the Okanogan River was flowing too deep and too fast for the race to be run through it. "If we had to do the race this weekend, we couldn’t do it," he said. The Stampede is "always the second weekend in August," as its promotional materials note, but the way the calendar falls this year, "we’re as late in the month as we can be," said Miller. "If we held the Stampede around the usual time of month, we might not be able to run the Suicide Race due to the river."

The Suicide Erasers, a group of PAWS members and horse advocates from around the world who work to end the Suicide Race, were urged to e-mail the Stampede——and encourage the cancellation of the race. For years the Stampede has played the "culture card," claiming the race is a Colville tradition. But this contention was undermined by the withdrawal of the Colvilles.

At least one Suicide Eraser remains skeptical. "It’s not over until it’s over," said a Suicide Eraser who is a Colville tribal member. "The Colvilles have been exploited by the white man for entertainment for years, and as long as there’s money in it, I wouldn’t count them out."

If you would like to become a Suicide Eraser, e-mail Mike Jones at

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