From Friday, March 6, through Sunday, March 9, youth of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community took part in the 2015 Horse Camp held at the SRPMIC tribal wild horse facility. The event is in its 16th year and has tremendous support from Community volunteers, the Salt River Rodeo Association and from other tribes, who all work together to produce this true cowboy experience.
This year’s camp included more than 65 children ranging in age from 5 to 17 who had the opportunity to ride, rope and learn about the daily care of livestock. The camp included a real camping experience—no comforts of home, but sleeping on the ground, getting up at sunrise and enjoying food prepared each day for them. The children learned what it is like to lead a simpler life.
Just as important was to listen and learn from host presenter Si Johnson and the other facilitators who came out to the camp to speak with the children and provide show-and-tell experiences.
This year, members from the Bald Eagle National Conservation Group came to the camp to teach the children about the bald eagles in the area. They explained how Arizona bald eagles are different from other bald eagles of the United States. They spoke about the nesting and mating habits of the eagle; they even demonstrated a mating dance, in which the eagles actually hold each other’s claws. As eagles grow up, they fly north, but they return every year to the area to claim their own territory. The purpose of the conservation group is to help protect the bald eagle, including those located on tribal lands.
Lead volunteer Angie Silversmith said, “A purpose of the camp is to expose each child to the traditional, spiritual, physical, mental and emotional experiences that a person may go through [being a cowboy or cowgirl].” This type of experience provides children basic concepts of responsibility for themselves, their horse and the other animals, and it helps the children gain self-confidence and learn to trust others.
As the children arrived on Friday, many could not wait to begin the camp, as the camp program has a full agenda of activities for the kids to do each day, which included many former “campers” as adult volunteers, demonstrators and monitors. The children ride horses, learn to take care of a horse and learn to use a rope. They also take part in catching, roping and tying down calves that they help brand, and they help with the castration of bull calves and much more.
Friday afternoon was an important time for the kids as they began the camp with an introduction by Si Johnson explaining the purpose of “the circle,” and why a fire burns throughout the day and night of the event. Johnson gave an overview of why Horse Camp is held in a certain manner, why they do things a certain way, and why it is held in a place like the desert, away from technology and the comforts of home.
The camp began with an O’odham song and blessing. It was explained to the children the importance of having a spiritual connection and why it is important to pray and give thanks for all that is here in this world for them. Johnson stated to the children and volunteers, “You are grounded here [on these lands], here you can get grounded with your culture.” He told them, “Your biggest computer is right here” [pointing to his head].
Johnson shared, “Horse Camp can be very powerful and a spiritual experience. My ‘professors’ [what he calls his horses] have many radars; they are very sensitive. A horse will get to understand you, learn who you are; it will get to know you, and a horse will respond to you.”
SRPMIC Council member David Antone, his wife Patricia, and other volunteers provided an opportunity for the kids to learn about taking care of cattle. They brought some calves to the arena so children could actively participate in rounding up and catching the calves. They learned how to tie the calves and watched up close how to brand them. You could hear words of amazement, excitement and astonishment as they were able to observe everything up close. Words like, “ooh, aah, yuk,” and more were expressed by the kids.
When the cattle exercise was completed, Antone said, “We give them a small necklace that has a part of a calf earlobe [or another part of the calf] that the kids can have [as a keepsake of] their experience.”
The concept of the everyday working activities of ranchers, as a way to manage their stock of cattle and horses, has been in practice for centuries. This practice is documented to have taken place since the middle 1800s and included Spanish influences from south of the U.S. Many ranch hands and eventual cattle owners were of Native American decent, and their descendants continue this practice today.
The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community has a long history of ranching and participating in rodeos, which is why an event such as Horse Camp is an important event. An original member of the Salt River Rodeo Association was the Late Emmitt King, a Community member who was instrumental in starting the Horse Camp in 1999, along with his friends the late Larry Johnson and Arnold Smith of the Tohono O’odham Nation. King continued to offer his expertise and support to the camp until he passed in 2009.
The longevity of Horse Camp is also thanks to the support and guidance offered by other Community members and volunteers, such as the late Jim McAnlis, Dusty Juan, Steve Wood and others. This year’s event committee members, volunteers and supporters planned and coordinated a very unique experience for the kids.
Perhaps the group of youngsters from the SRPMIC who participated in the 2015 Horse Camp will develop further interest in this sort of wholesome activity. The presenters and volunteers hope the children will have learned more about their self-identity, improved their confidence level and made new friends.
The camp also may have enlightened the youth about the prospects of becoming a horse person and cattle rancher, which may spark their interest in keeping the Native American cowboy and cowgirl experience alive.