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Too Native, Too White A MIXED COWGIRL FINDS IDENTITY IN RODEO

Photos and text by Eli Imadali

Rodeo is everywhere in Keira Simonson's life. It's in the 21-year-old's kitchen as a University of Montana rodeo team picture pinned to the fridge. It's in her bathroom as a horse-themed towel. It's in her truck as her muddy boots with spurs attached. It's her weekends and her escape.

But it's come to mean something more fundamental too, and less tangible.

Keira and a white cowgirl wait for their runs at the Copper Springs Ranch rodeo, just outside of Bozeman, Montana.

Keira is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Chippewa tribe. The tribe is landless, with no reservation and no federal recognition, though that almost changed in February of this year. Almost. She was disappointed when she heard a bill for federal recognition was struck down by one vote, a Republican from Utah.

Her mother, Judy, is half Little Shell, half white, while her father, Dan, is white. Keira's grandmother spoke the language of the Turtle Mountain Little Shell, but never passed it on to Judy, who then couldn't teach Keira. Growing up outside of a reservation and in a mixed family further removed Keira from Native American culture, too.

Despite all of this, she's managed to stay connected to this part of her identity with a passion she's had since she was three years old - rodeo.

Keira saddles up her barrel racing horse, Diesel, while her mother gets a bridle from their trailer. Barrel racing is a rodeo event in which a horse and its rider race around barrels, set up in a cloverleaf pattern in the fastest time they can.

For Keira, going to Native American rodeos on the Indian National Finals Rodeo tour has been her way of connecting with other Native American people. She's developed a makeshift family at INFR rodeos with whom she can joke around using "Native humor" - sarcastic, loud and full of laughter. She can share the Native experience in America with them, and learn about different tribes and practices along the way.

Keira jokes around with her aunt, Billie Jo, and her mother, Judy, while waiting for her brother's run at the Copper Springs Ranch barrel race.

But even then, she doesn't feel fully at home. Her identity is liminal, somewhere between a white woman and a Little Shell woman. At INFR rodeos, she says, she feels white compared to everyone else. At other rodeos, she sometimes feels acutely aware of her darker skin and hair, and the stereotypes that come with her appearance. "They probably look at me and they think, 'Oh, she's just Native.'"

Top: Keira and her mom's matching hair braids. Bottom: Keira sets up Diesel's saddle shortly after braiding his mane.

This identity struggle, though, doesn't stop her. She's a force to be reckoned with and always has been, whether in college rodeo, the INFR or junior rodeos. She's currently the best female college barrel racer in the Big Sky region and top 10 in the country.

Keira rides diesel around a barrel during the barrel race at the UM Rodeo in April 2019. The announcer described Keira as the best in the region, and Diesel as the fastest black horse he'd seen.
Left: Keira and her sister, Kiana, hold championship buckles. Right: Keira poses with the INFR World Champion saddle for junior barrel racing that she won. Bottom: Her championship belt from the Fort Peck Indian Rodeo ladies barrel race. Archival images provided by Judy Simonson.
Keira tugs a calf rope back hard on a plastic calf during a UM rodeo practice.
Top: Photos of Keira and her sister, Kiana, from recent barrel races hang on a wall in their Missoula home as Keira video chats with a friend from the UM rodeo team. Bottom: Living room and bathroom decorations in Keira's house.

Rodeo aside, she's a student at the University of Montana studying exercise science. There, she plays on an all-Native American intramural basketball team.

Keira jokes around with her friend Marley Tanner before a game on their all-Native American intramural basketball team.
Left: Keira gets her eyelashes done at an appointment that happened to fall just before the annual UM Spring Rodeo. Right: Illuminated by the blue television screen, Keira plays with her and her sister's Pomeranians, Bear and Sophie, after studying for her lab final exam for an exercise science class.

But as soon as she leaves that arena, she's looking for the next opportunity to go back. Rodeo means family and friends, and dreams of winning it all professionally. "It's just something I crave - to constantly be going to another one."

Created By
Eli Imadali
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