A Navajo pro bull rider and an Apache youth dance group shine in Glendale
Shiny bells jingle as a group of six White Mountain Apache teens stand eagerly ready at an arena entranceway. They are the Dishchii’ Bikoh’ Apache Group, and drove hours from the Fort Apache Reservation to perform the Crown Dance.
Desert Diamond Arena was recently the home of the second-ever Ridge Rider Days, a team-series event organized by Professional Bull Riding, Inc. Twenty founders met inside a Scottsdale motel room to form the world’s largest pro bull riding league more than three decades ago.
The Arizona Ridge Riders, a Glendale-based franchise in its infancy following its inaugural season, hosted the weekend-long competition that ended earlier this month. And the PBR invited them to dance in front of as many as 20,000 fans in late September. Also known as the Gaan Dance, it’s a tradition to shield their community from disease and enemies. But in this case, to protect professional bull riders from sustaining any injuries during that weekend.
Now, it’s their turn to step into the arena’s bright spotlight.
Jerrett Dale of the White Mountain Apache Tribe sang from offstage as the children danced on a raised platform right in front of the bull riders. He steadily beat on a water drum, which he described as “a deer hide and a big pot” that you wet and “gives you that power.” He helped found the group as a co-coordinator. “I had a whole different group and these kids were born in 2009, so they’re the next generation,” according to Dale.
Their name, Dishchii' Bikoh’, derives from an Apache word for “Valley of Red Mountains.” It refers to where they hail from, a town called Cibecue, in northeastern Arizona. This popular team has adopted that word and brought it all around the world through their dancing.
The troupe frequently travels from the nearby Grand Canyon to as far as France for a powwow. And sometimes performs on short notice, with little opportunity to practice, if at all. Their viral videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube alone. And their appearance Glendale was only scheduled two weeks prior.
Dale says they’re “training now, young and learning,” but outings like this one actually help prepare these youth for ceremonies back home. “One of them is about to get selected soon, so he follows the medicine man. They usually get their Apache name.”
But something else motivates him even more.
“The coordinator and I started this group to keep them off drugs and alcohol,” Dale added. “And you know, in our area, we’re slowly losing our language, the kids.”
Performing inside jam-packed arenas, surrounded by fire and pyro, allows these youth to showcase their talents for strangers and family alike, especially for mothers like Kaneesha Whiteclaw. Her son is Jy’ah Lee.
“It’s amazing, because it’s what he loves doing. I know he definitely has a lot of love for our tradition,” said Whiteclaw. “He’s always been the leader. And to have his buddies dance alongside him, it’s just such a great sight to see. I’m truly happy”
After the performance, they were admittedly shy to talk about it, until they could see themselves photographed inside that arena. Another proud mom is Koko Walker.
“It’s like a once in a lifetime experience,” said Walker. “I hope they get to come out again next year. He makes me proud, a proud mom.”
Her son, Kaiaphas Begay, began dancing as a toddler and is helping keep that family tradition alive alongside his uncle, who’s also a dancer on their reservation.
Uriah Bontino started dancing by first grade and admitted that evening was the largest audience he had ever seen — let alone perform in front of. And Rashad Smith had to use his fingers to figure out how long he’s been dancing for. According to his count, he’s been performing since the age of 4.
“My grandpa passed on. He told me to keep dancing,” said Smith. “It was a fun experience coming down and a long drive, just dancing in front of all those people is exciting.”
It was their chance to bask in the limelight before they all sat down to watch one rising 25-year-old Navajo star shine. Cody Jesus was born and raised a few hundred miles away in a town called Window Rock. It’s also the capital of the Navajo Nation.
Jesus now competes for the Texas Rattlers. He’s one of the most popular bull riders in this predominantly white sport. Another famous Navajo pro athlete in action that weekend was Keyshawn Whitehorse.
The 26-year-old from Kraken Springs, Utah, was this year’s runner-up at PBR’s Buckin’ on the Rez at the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock last month before returning to Glendale for his team’s grandstand matchup. This was the penultimate competition for the 2023 PBR Camping World Team Series regular season, which culminates with its championship held in Las Vegas in late October.
And whether it’s Navajo bull riders like himself and Jesus or White Mountain Apache youth performers being spotlighted at these events, Whitehorse says Indigenous peoples “have always had a huge impact” on this sport, both in and out of Indian Country. “It’s greatly appreciated that they are being shown within the Western lifestyle more and more, and it’s growing in that aspect,” Whitehorse added, “so, I’m just grateful for it.”
In Glendale, Jesus got a warm welcome on that first, disappointing Friday night in front of a roaring hometown crowd, many of whom came from the Navajo Nation to witness his highly-anticipated return to professional bull riding. “Despite being a Texas Rattler, I think they stand behind their Arizona man,” Jesus told KJZZ News, “so it's always fun.”
He got bucked off a bull named Snake Eyes after a few seconds. It was his first ride since recovering from a months-long wrist injury that kept him off the radar for most of this season.
“I just didn't know if I could trust anything, like my groin, or the injuries that were nagging me,” said Jesus, “but I think that was on the back of my mind. I made a mental error.”
But after the Crown Dance that following evening, Jesus believed: “Going into night two, I knew that everything was working fine, and I could trust everything.”
And it paid off, with Jesus staying on a bull named I’m Legit Too for the full eight seconds.
“I could just let it all hang out, and it worked out great,” Jesus added. “You can’t ask for anything better than seeing, you know, other tribes getting out there and performing for live television or a big event like that.”
That ride even thrusted his team to a tight-margin victory by three-quarters of a point over the Carolina Cowboys on that same night in front of fans from Arizona and the Navajo Nation.
More stories from KJZZ
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- This Tohono O'odham vocalist sang U.S. national anthem in his own language at Ridge Rider Days