Kyle Tom grew up in Iyanbito, a town 16 miles east of Gallup on the Navajo Nation, in a fourth-generation rodeo family. He is of the Ashiihi nishli (Salt People) and Haltsooi bashishchinn (Meadow People) clans. Indian rodeo is rooted in the horse racing and wild-cow racing competitions that started on the Navajo Nation in the late 1880s. The first formally organized Navajo rodeo took place in 1957. Although the sport ran in his blood, Tom took to announcing rather than competing. Since his start, he’s held the mic at events across the U.S. and at the granddaddy event, the Navajo Nation Fair, one of the largest fairs and rodeos on the Navajo Nation.
Rodeo is part of the Navajo culture. Going back to our traditional stories, the horse is there. They have a spiritual role in our ceremonies. With the Navajo Nation being as big as it is, even into the 1970s, people were riding or traveling by covered wagon sometimes two to three days to a trading post to get necessities. Even today, there’s always a time when kids are chased out of the house and onto the saddle. So many of our young men and women raise livestock, understand ranch work, and have horsemanship skills.
All my early memories are of going to rodeos. My father was a bull rider, then did calf-roping. He was a Southpaw, so everyone remembers Ed Tom. I started early doing junior rodeos, but I didn’t make it past six or seven years old. Every time in practice, I’d nail it, but once I got to the rodeo it would all fall apart. My competition experiences were pretty scary. My joke is that if I could do anything, I wouldn’t be the one doing the talking.
Before I announce an event, there’s so much preparation. At the bigger rodeos, you get a day sheet, and you go right to doing your homework. I find out who’s won where, who’s on a streak. When I offer commentary, I do it with excitement. I want the crowd to get into it and for everybody to scream.
Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeos have seven events, but those affiliated with Indian National Finals Rodeo have an extra event. They add in ladies’ breakaway roping, which we’ve had forever. We’ve always known these ladies could do more than barrel racing. A lot of Indian rodeos are also adding ladies team roping now.
People who want to attend rodeos on the Navajo Nation can look for events hosted by the Central Navajo Rodeo Association and the Navajo Nation Rodeo Association. A lot of the fairs also host rodeos, including the Eastern Navajo Fair and Rodeo, in Crownpoint, and the Northern Navajo Nation Fair, in Shiprock. Although it’s not on the Navajo Nation, the rodeo at Red Rock Park, in Gallup, during the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial is also a great event.
The Navajo Nation Fair Rodeo, in Window Rock, Arizona, is one of the largest. I was fortunate to announce that rodeo for the first time in 2019. It was a dream come true. I remember being seven years old and my dad taking my whole family to the rodeo. Growing up, we’d always go to short-round Sunday and watch the final showdowns. I went to that rodeo for so many years, then I was finally behind the mic. My family, and even my dad, came. It was a real full-circle moment.
On the Navajo Nation, rodeo is still rodeo. You can pull up and park your truck next to the rodeo arena. Most people back in, put down the tailgate, and sit in camping chairs in truck beds to watch. Navajo rodeo is best enjoyed with frybread. Bring cash because there will likely be jewelry that Navajo vendors set up. And if you’re going to really experience a rodeo, make a weekend of it and explore the rest of the Navajo Nation, including the tribal parks like the Four Corners Monument.