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Native Sun News: Remembering rodeo legend Jackson Sundown

The following story was written and reported by Ernestine Chasing Hawk, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Jackson Sundown rides Angel to the Saddle Bronc Championship of the World at Pendleton in 1911. Image from Pendleton USA

Remembering Jackson Sundown
By Ernestine Chasing Hawk
Native Sun News Staff Writer

His story, mythical; his image, immortalized in bronze and stone; his flamboyant attire, replicated by Pendleton; his dashing good looks, preserved on footage in a documentary; his epic adventures, chronicled in books.

He was inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, National Cowboys of Color Museum and Hall of Fame and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame and was the first American Indian to win a World Title in the Saddle Bronc Championship at Pendleton. Yet many have never heard about this larger than life Indian cowboy who lived during the time of Chief’s Joseph and Sitting Bull, during a time when Indians were fearless and free.

The Nez Perce warrior Jackson Sundown, Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn, (Earth Left by the Setting Sun or Blanket of the Sun), nephew of the Legendary Chief Joseph, was born in 1863 in Montana. Historical accounts of his life cite that Sundown, at a young age, displayed the traits of an athlete, riding his Appaloosa pony from the time he could walk.

At age 14, his knack for handling horses earned him the privilege of caring for his tribes’ horses and herding them when they moved camp during the turbulent 1877 Nez Perce War.

On Aug. 9, 1877, the daring young Sundown displayed his stealth when his people were ambushed by the forces of the U.S. cavalry at Big Hole in southwestern Montana territory where they suffered many casualties, including women and children.

Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn, although badly burned, outwitted the enemy and survived by hiding under a buffalo robe after they had torched his mother’s teepee where he had been sleeping. Another legendary account of Sundown’s bravery was when the Nez Perce, en route to Sitting Bulls camp in Canada, stopped to rest near Snake Creek in the Bear Paw Mountains just 40 miles south of the Canadian border.

Unbeknownst to the Nez Perce, Brigadier General Nelson H. Miles had been dispatched to find and intercept them. Combined U.S. forces made an early morning surprise attack on the Nez Perce and after a three day stand-off, the war weary Chief Joseph surrendered and declared he would “fight no more forever.”

Sundown, again displaying his prowess as a renegade Nez Perce warrior, escaped, although being wounded, “by clinging to the side of his horse so that it appeared riderless.” Despite having no blankets or food, he and a small band of survivors made their way to Sitting Bull’s camp in Canada. Sundown is said to have lived in hiding with Sitting Bull and those that defeated General George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn as a war criminal for two years.

Olive C. Wehr in “To Live on a Reservation,” writes: “After two years, he stealthily rode to Nespelem, Wash., where Joseph and his surviving followers were confined to a small reservation away from their beloved hills of Wallowa. Joseph warned him not to go there, so Sundown went instead to the Flathead Reservation.”

He lived on the Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana for many years and married a Salish woman called by some Pewlosap, and raised two daughters, Adeline and Josephine.

In 1910, Sundown rejoined his tribe on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, where he took an allotment of land and built a cabin. He later married Cecelia Wapshela in 1912, and they built a home at Jacques Spur, Idaho. He made his living by breeding, raising, breaking and selling horses.

Jackson Sundown

Sundown, at the age of 49, began entering rodeo events in Canada and Idaho (Culdesac, Orofino, Kamiah and Grangeville) as a means to earn extra money.

The striking Indian cowboy wore a big sombrero over his Nez Perce pompadour, his long braids tied under his chin by a handkerchief, brightly colored shirts and large wooly angora chaps. His eye-catching appearance made him an instant crowd favorite.

At twice the age of his competitors, the lanky six-foot tall Indian not only won the bucking championship, but would win the all-around titles as well. He so dominated the sport that many of his opponents would withdraw after learning he would be competing.

In 1911, Sundown made the Saddle Bronc Finals for the World Championship at the Pendleton Round-Up, an event that would end in controversy and protest. He competed with George Fletcher, an African American, and John Spain, a European American.

Moscow Pullman Daily News reports that Sundown took third after falling from his horse which had slammed into one of the judges’ horses, but was not given a re-ride.

Fletcher, who “thrilled the crowd with his first ride,” was ordered a re-ride by the judges which “was as wild as the first,” would be awarded second place.

Spain would be awarded the grand prize amid protests from the crowd claiming he had touched the horse with his free hand.

The towns Sheriff Till Taylor is said to have taken Fletchers hat, torn it up and sold the pieces to the thousands of protestors. They handed Fletcher the proceeds and declared him “The Peoples Champion.”

Award-winning Western novelist Rick Steber chronicled the story in his book titled “Red White Black,” that “forever changed the sport of rodeo, and the way the emerging West was to look at itself.”

Ken Kesey writer of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” also wrote a book titled “Last Go Round”, that tells the story “of the hustle and bustle around the 2nd annual Pendleton Round-Up rodeo in 1911.”

A 2006 documentary titled “American Cowboys” includes black and white footage that captured images of Sundown and Fletcher at that historic event. The documentary is sold through Vision Maker a website dedicated to Native films.

In 1915, Sundown made the Saddle Bronc Finals for the World Championship at the Pendleton Round-Up, and again placed third and decided to retire.

However Alexander Phimister Proctor who was sculpting Sundown at the time, persuaded the 53 year old to enter the 1916 Roundup in Pendleton, Oregon and paid his entrance fee.

All Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn years as a horseman, and his rodeo experience showed that day. In the final ride to victory Sundown drew Angel, a horse he had ridden before. It is said that Sundown became one with the horse. As Angel tried one last attempt at throwing Sundown off, Sundown fanned his hat at the horse. And then the signal of the end of the ride.

Of the ride that would make him icon in American Indian history, Al Fonburg secretary of the Pendleton Round-up wrote:
“The year was 1916, and a noisy crowd watched as the only full-blooded Indian ever to compete in the Pendleton Round-up Championship rode to victory.”

“Pitted against him in the finals were two great bronc riders of the day, Rufus Rollen of Oklahoma and Bob Hall of Pocatello. Both men made epic rides, but the ride of Sundown eclipsed them both, though they were only half his age.”

“His horse was the famous Angel and from the start the riding Indian spurred his mount in the flanks and shoulder. Not for a moment did the punishment abate. The very ground of the arena seemed to rock with the earth shaking leaps of the outlaw bronc. Sundown rode gloriously into the championship amid an ovation never before equaled. The throngs – White and Indians – cheered themselves hoarse.”

When the 1916 World Champion Bronc Rider was awarded handsome leather tool prize saddle and asked what he would like engraved on the silver plate, he replied Cecelia Wapshela, his wife’s name. Sundown made his last public appearance in Lewiston in 1917 with Idaho Governor Moses Alexander as the guest of honor.

In 1923, Jackson Sundown died of pneumonia, he was buried at Slickpoo Mission Cemetery near Jacques Spur, Idaho. Sundown wasn’t even an American citizen when he died. Congress voted in 1924 to make American Indians citizens of the United States.

A stone monument placed on the grave of Nez Perce warrior and horseman reads: Jackson Sundown Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn Nez Perce, Born in Montana 1863, Died at Jacques Spur, December 18, 1923 at the age of 60 years.

(Ernestine Chasing Hawk can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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