About a month before this year’s big centennial hootenany, I was in a business meeting with a publicist who does some work on the side for the Stampede. “You won’t recognize it,” he said of the many innovations and improvements made to the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” after I informed him that I hadn’t attended in a good 15 years or so.
So walking through the main gates the other night under that new, metallic tipi-like structure constructed to honour the Treaty 7 nations, I braced for even more surprises.
But there weren’t many — same old giant Ferris wheel (which doesn’t look quite so big anymore), same old Zipper (still just as terrifying as ever, if you ask this ground dweller), same old smell of horseshit. Fine by me, too. It was quite nostalgic. My biggest complaint was that the old jungle-themed funhouse with the giant gorilla on top was no longer part of the attractions — that’s not progress, in my books.
$100 in ride coupons and a dose of Gravol later (never, ever go on the Octopus with nothing but a mocha shake in your belly), it was a relief just to walk around a bit and take in some more sights. As we walked by the Mardi Gras–themed funhouse with its mural of an insanely endowed carnival performer, over to the equally busty frau on the Alpine-themed one, past the games hawking rasta-bananas with blunted, red eyes and into the BMO centre, where we spied belt buckles adorned with things like the Confederate flag or with the word ‘bitch’ spelled out in blingy glitter, it occurred to both my companion and I that some elements of this horse-drawn time-warp were much more reactionary and less benign than others.
The next day I got a text from a friend who happens to belong to one of those Treaty 7 nations honoured in the park’s entranceway — he was not impressed by the buckles either, but even less so by the new bronze horse statues. Apparently, one of them was called “Squaw Patch,” which as my friend reminded, employed a “derogatory term for First Nations’ women.”
I headed back to the grounds to see for myself — sure enough, there it was, but then I read the plaque, which explained that the names used for the statutes came from real horses that were “important in the history of the Stampede.”
Okay, then. Historical context. This was clearly a non-starter of story.
But, musing about it some more in search of cold drink back in the BMO, I thought, what if, hypothetically speaking, there was a historically accurate display that utilized the N-word?
Not the same thing?
Easy for me to say, but tell it to my friend.
Then I came across these little plush toys in a British themed candy store:
Perhaps a discussion of race and gender representation down on the grounds was in order after all.
What I came to learn about the issue is that, while it’s clearly on other peoples’ minds, the solutions aren’t all that black and white in some cases. Take the Indian Village, for example… Hal Eagle Tail of the Tsuu T’ina Nation is a seasoned performer with the rodeo (although he’s taking this year off, he sang with the hoop dancers for the previous five Stampedes in a row) and is also owner of a cultural consultancy business, Eagle Star Enterprises. And Eagle Tail wants to see the First Nations' component of the exhibition get with the times.
“It’s just the word “Indian” that I have a problem with. It’s outdated terminology — it’s
getting to the point where the “I” word is like the “N” word is to the black people,” he says. “That’s where we’re getting to with this generation.”
However, the resistance he and others who share the same mindset isn’t necessarily coming from the Stampede board, but from within his own community.
“Obviously it’s been there since the old days, and it was an acceptable word back then,” he says of the Indian Village. “And I think it’s just the elders that still like to be called that — ‘Indians.’ That’s what our elders grew up with, but it’s the next generation coming up, the younger ones that are now more associated with ‘first peoples,’ ‘first nations,’ and ‘native.’ That’s what we grew up with. That’s now the clashing point of the two cultures or the two generations.
“It’s really up to the tipi owners to make the change,” he continues. “Stampede certainly doesn’t have to listen to other organizations — as long as the village elders and tipi holders say keep it this way, it will be kept that way without any second thoughts.”
Eagle Tail says he hopes that when the village is relocated with the next expansion, that the move will affect a change for the better. In the mean time, he’s far from alienated and is prepared to continue to do his part in helping the Stampede evolve.
“My family and community has been involved since it started, and we will continue to be
involved in that respect,” he says. “I love to educate about the culture — whenever culture is part of the education process, it’s always a good thing.”
But as for all the other questionable images found on the midway? Well, in that case we’re all the tipi-holders too. Unless we speak up and ask for something better of this city’s defining attraction, things aren’t liable to be much different in years to come. (And, yeah, don't get me started on those dead horses... had enough Stampeding for now...)