The Saga of Jackson Sundown
Chief Joseph's nephew was with him at the last Nez Perce battle in 1877. But Earth Left by the Setting Sun would rise from the ashes.
This is the amazing story of a Nez Perce man who straddled centuries, who bridged a fading culture and a new one. In Wednesday’s post about the Appaloosa breed we mentioned the amazing story of a blonde, blue-eyed Nez Perce man—an old man—who fought at the Battle of the Bear Paw with Chief Joseph. That man’s name was Daytime Smoke and he was the son of the famous white explorer William Clark, who was saved from starvation and freezing to death in the mountains by the Nez Perce. Seventy-two years before the Battle of the Bear Paw, William Clark would father a son with a Nez Perce woman. And that son—half white, half Nez Perce, but with blonde hair and blue eyes—would live to see his father’s white world destroy his mother’s native one. Daytime Smoke straddled a century and two cultures, one dying, one being born.
At the Battle of the Bear Paw, there was another man—actually a boy, a 12-year-old Nez Perce boy who would live to straddle centuries and clashing cultures, too, just as Daytime Smoke had. The boy’s name was Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn. Earth Left by the Setting Sun. He was the nephew of Chief Joseph and he had become a warrior at a very young age to help defend his tribe. Earth Left by the Setting Sun had fought alongside his uncles, Chief Joseph and Ollokot, and he had fought bravely.
About mid-point in their long, 1,500-mile trek, Nez Perce Chief Looking Glass, who had joined Chief Joseph’s band, persuaded the tribe to rest at the Big Hole, to graze their tired horses, rest the people and gather meat and other food stuffs. It was there that the Nez Perce suffered a devastating ambush. Colonel Gibbon had placed a 12-pound mountain howitzer with 2,000 rounds of ammunition up on a mountain ridge to rain down death on the village. Troops started teepees on fire, then shot Nez Perce as they tried to escape. Earth Left by the Setting Sun had hidden under buffalo robes and waited to flee, knowing the initial onslaught would be the most dangerous time. But he suffered serious burns over much of his body and nearly died.
Earth Left by the Setting Sun had to heal while the tribe continued hard riding, which must have been extremely painful. Still, for the next two months, he participated in fighting all the way to the Bear Paw. There, he was again wounded, sustaining three rifle wounds.
When it was decided that Chief Joseph would have to surrender to save what was left of his freezing tribe, a couple of hundred Nez Perce chose to escape north to Sitting Bull’s camp by cover of night and by intermingling in the horse herds. Earth Left by the Setting Sun was one of the last to leave, stealthily clinging to the side of his horse so that it appeared riderless.
There, he healed from his painful wounds and stayed in Canada for nearly two years. The boy, now fourteen, was a free soul and had always loved horses and had a way with them. It was said that he learned to ride the same time he learned to walk and that he was given his first colt at age 5. He wanted to raise horses and decided to return to the states, to the Nespelem reservation. But Joseph counseled him not to stay and he rode to the Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana, where he raised and trained horses for a living. He stayed there for about thirty years and in 1912, he decided to rejoin his Nez Perce people on the Lapwai, Idaho, reservation. There he married, built a cabin, and built a horse business breeding, training, and selling horses.
At age 49, he began entering rodeo events in Idaho and Canada to make extra money. The striking, six-foot-tall, rugged Nez Perce had a special style, wearing colorful shirts, and wooly angora chaps, fancy beaded Nez Perce rawhide-fringed gloves and a big hat over his tribal pompadour. He tied his long black braids under his chin with a handkerchief. He found he could make good money and his reputation grew as a crowd favorite. His coup de grace was changing his name for a white-man audience. His lyrical Nez Perce name, Earth Left by the Setting Sun, became Jackson Sundown.
He was such a skilled athlete, even though he was more than twice the age of most of his competitors, he consistently won not only bucking championships, but all-around titles as well. One Idaho newspaper declared: “Crowds have never seen such splendid horsemanship.”
One noted British writer Charles Wellington Furlong, wrote of Sundown’s riding as: “a sight fit for the gods. Long braids of crow-black hair tied in front looped and wafted against the cinnamon brown cheeks of the rider; his colored shirt and kerchief flattering and billowing against his muscle-articulating torso in the movements of the wind.” He often dominated rodeo competitions and many opponents withdrew if he was competing. It became such a problem for promoters that he was discouraged from competing. But he was so popular crowds demanded him, so promoters paid him $25-$75 (an immense fee at the time) for exhibition rides on the toughest broncs.
Such was Sundown’s success that in 1915 he made it to the Pendleton Round-Up, the apex of rodeo events. He placed third after a controversial ruling that many felt robbed him of winning. In bitter disappointment, Sundown decided to retire from rodeoing. But, the next year, the famous sculptor, Alexander Phimister Proctor, was sculpting Jackson Sundown and persuaded him to enter the world championships one more time and even paid for his entrance fee.
He made it to the finals, then he had a stroke of luck: he drew the most notorious of bucking horses: Angel! She was a spectacular athlete, known to unseat all of her riders with the most dangerous and impossible gyrations. When Angel exploded out of the gate, Jackson began the ride of his life and what followed became legendary in the annals of the rodeo world.
All of his childhood years of riding in the Wallowa Lake Valley, all of his years wrangling in Montana and Idaho flowed into that moment, flowed through his body. Accounts of the ride said he became one with Angel as she twisted and reared and bucked and writhed. Furlong wrote: “The big bay pivoted twice and then seemed to nearly reach heaven in a series of high, long jumps of the kind which have spelled defeat for many a rider.... Sundown was a superb figure, riding like a centaur...poised for an infinitesimal fraction of a second seemingly in midheaven. It seemed no man could stand the punishment, but ... Sundown was riding to win everything or lose everything, on his last throw of the dice.” Round-Up secretary Al Fonburg recounted: “The very ground of the arena seemed to rock with the earth-shaking leaps of the outlaw bronc. Sundown rode gloriously into the championship amid an ovation never before equaled. The throngs — White and Indians — cheered themselves hoarse.” The bell rung. Jackson Sundown, Wa Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn, was the 1916 World Champion Bronc Rider. He was 53 years old, more than twice the age of his competitors.
As part of the championship, Sundown won a coveted silver saddle. When the officials asked what he wanted engraved on the saddle, he requested his beloved wife’s name: Cecilia. To this day, he remains the only full-blooded Native American to win the World Championship. Sundown made his last public appearance in 1917 for Governor Moses Alexander. Only six years later, he would die of pneumonia and his old lingering war wounds, that must have suffered horribly under the brutal rigors of rodeo riding. He was buried at Slickpoo Mission Cemetery near Jacques Spur. Later a stone monument was placed there to remember the Nez Perce warrior and horseman Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn.
Nearly a 100 years later, Jackson Sundown would be inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame, and the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame.
PHOTOS: (1) Hand-tinted photographic portrait of Jackson Sundown, Circa 1916. Pendleton Round-Up photograph. (2) Jackson Sundown posing with his 2016 World Championship silver saddle and certificate of the championship. (3) Jackson Sundown riding Angel for the 2016 World Rodeo Championship in Pendleton, Oregon. (4 & 5) Jackson Sundown riding broncs. Believed to be 1911 photographs at the Pendleton Round-Up. (6) Jackson Sundown in 1920, three years before his death. (7) The 1916 sculpture of Jackson Sundown by famous artist, Alexander Phimister Proctor. The sculptor persuaded Jackson to enter the world championships one more time and even paid for his entrance fee. That year, Jackson Sundown won the national championship. Proctor had exhibited at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 and later sculpted President Teddy Roosevelt mounted and General William Tecumseh Sherman on a horse for the Grand Army Plaza bordering Central Park. (8 & 9) A shirt Jackson Sundown wore during his rodeo career. The shirt is trade cloth but much of it sewn with sinew in the old native way. The shirt was preserved by Angela Swedberg, one of the nation’s leading Tribally Certified Indian Artisans. The photograph above shows Jackson Sundown wearing the shirt with a Nez Perce loop necklace over it. Date unknown.
You may enjoy these related posts:
-Angela's Amazing Nez Perce Art and Her Appy, Cappy
-Where Bucking Broncs & Bulls Go to Heaven
© 2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Originally posted July 26, 2019
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