For Tribal Nations of the American Rocky Mountains and high plains, the thrilling competition and excitement of Indian Relay gets people talking.
“At the end of the day, what people sit around and talk about is Indian Relay,” said Charles Dye, the director of the new documentary entitled Indian Relay.
Indian Relay is a style of bareback horse racing involving four to eight teams racing head-to-head. Each team is made up of four people and three horses. One person is the rider, another person, known as the mugger, catches the horse when the rider jumps off, and the other two people handle the horses.
During a race, riders make three laps around the typically half-mile track, changing to a new horse at the beginning of each lap. Two members of the team are responsible for keeping the horses calm before their lap, while the fourth team member stands by to catch the horse after the rider completes a lap and leaps off the horse mid-stride.
“It’s like choreography,” Dye said. “Those people have to be extremely well practiced so they can all work together.”
In as few movements as possible after hitting the ground, the rider then vaults onto another horse and speeds off for another lap. The fastest team to complete all three laps and exchanges is the winner.
“It’s hard jumping on and off thoroughbreds going at high rates of speed,” Dye said. “There are inevitably tons of crashes.”
Indian Relay follows multiple teams as they compete throughout the Indian Relay season. Many of the teams consist of families with Indian Relay roots stretching back generations.
“We’ve followed the teams that have consistently let us into their lives and the teams that have been most consistent in racing throughout the year,” he said.
Bragging rights and money are at stake for the teams that compete in the Indian Relay circuit. The 2011 Indian Relay National Championships in Blackfoot, Idaho, had a $37,500 purse. Dye and his film crew filmed races around the Western U.S. at Tribal fairs and rodeos such as Crow Native Days in Crow Agency, Montana, and the Pendleton Round-Up in Pendleton, Oregon.
“Indian Relay is a story about what people on the Reservations in Montana and Idaho and South Dakota are super excited about.”
Dye’s interest in the sport of Indian Relay began while working on an earlier documentary for PBS entitled Before There Were Parks: Yellowstone and Glacier Through Native Eyes. The film presented Native perspectives on the national parks in America. While doing interviews for the film in Tribal communities, Dye noticed everyone he spoke to had photographs of Indian Relay in their homes.
“At one point, someone turned to me and said, ‘you know, you shouldn’t be worrying about this film about the national parks, you should be making a film about Indian Relay,’” Dye said.
Dye received an MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking from Montana State University’s School of Film and Photography. Dye said his filmmaking focuses on traditional cultures within the context of the modern world.
One of his earlier film projects was Last of the Gum Men, a film about the few remaining chicle harvesters in the Guatemalan jungle. He also worked on The Crystal Mountain, a film shot in Nepal about a man trying to preserve his traditional way of life despite the encroachments of modernization and tourism.
“I have always tried to work on these films that deal with the long history of human cultures and how we are threading this needle of getting into the future,” Dye said. “In that regard, Indian Relay is the perfect film, it’s all about tradition, family, what your ancestors thought was important... and what is important to you here and today.”