Rodeo as Refuge, Rodeo as Rebellion

Gender, Race, and Identity in the American Rodeo

Elyssa Ford

From the Wild West shows of the nineteenth century to the popular movie Westerns of the twentieth century, one view of an idealized and mythical West has been promulgated. Elyssa Ford suggests that we look beyond these cowboy clichés to complicate and enrich our picture of the American West. Rodeo as Refuge, Rodeo as Rebellion takes us from the beachfront rodeo arenas in Hawai‘i to the reservation rodeos held by Native Americans to reveal how people largely missing from that stereotypical picture make rodeo—and America—their own.

Because rodeo has such a hold on our historical and cultural imagination, it becomes an ideal arena for establishing historical and cultural relevance. By claiming a place in that arena, groups rarely included in our understanding of the West—African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Hawaiians, and the LGBT+ community—emphasize their involvement in the American past and proclaim their right to an American identity today. In doing so, these groups change what Americans know about their history and themselves. In her journey through these race- and group-specific rodeos, Ford finds that some see rodeo as a form of escape, a refuge from a hostile outside world. For others, rodeo has become a site of rebellion, a place to proclaim their difference and to connect to a different story of America. Still others, like Mexican Americans and the LGBT+ community, look inward, using rodeo to coalesce and celebrate their own identities.

“In Rodeo as Refuge, Rodeo as Rebellion, Ford compellingly uses the rodeo to explore how lived experiences interact with mythic pasts to shape modern identities in diverse settings across North America. The theme of work and the roles of women in each rodeo are highlights in this appealing study.”

—Margaret Frisbee, associate professor of history, Metropolitan State University of Denver

Rodeo as Refuge, Rodeo as Rebellion is an important addition to rodeo history, providing a welcome exploration of rodeo that falls outside the traditional white, masculine narrative. Well written and extensively researched, Elyssa Ford beautifully demonstrates the importance of the sport to diverse racial and outsider groups, deftly illustrating how the staging of rodeos for themselves and by themselves’ provides important personal and community connection to their Western past.”

—Renee M. Laegreid, author of Riding Pretty: Rodeo Royalty in the American West

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In Ford’s study of these historically marginalized groups, she also examines where women fit in race- and group-specific rodeos—and concludes that even within these groups, the traditional masculinity of the rodeo continues to be promoted. Female competitors may find refuge within alternate rodeos based on their race or sexuality, but they still face limitations due to their gender identity.

Whether as refuge or rebellion, rodeos of difference emerge in this book as quintessentially American, remaking how we think about American history, culture, and identity.

About the Author

Elyssa Ford is associate professor of history at Northwest Missouri State University.