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Jackson Sundown

Jackson Sundown (1863-December 18, 1923), born Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn (meaning Blanket of the Sun)[1], was a Native American rodeo rider who has become a folk-hero for his mythic performance in the 1916 Pendleton Round-Up, largely popularized by Ken Kesey's novel The Last Go 'Round. He was born in 1863 in the Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce tribe. The Nez Perce were renowned for their mastery of horses and Sundown learned how to breed and raise horses at an early age. By the age of 14 he was active in the Nez Perce War, led by Chief Joseph. Unlike Joseph and many of his tribesmen, Sundown escaped the US Cavalry during the Nez Perce Retreat of 1877 and fled to Canada with a small group of wounded warriors. Legend holds that Sundown stayed for two years with a group of Sioux, including the iconic Sitting Bull. He was considered to be a war criminal and lived in hiding with Sitting Bull and those that defeated General George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn.[2]

In 1879, Sundown returned to the US and lived with family on the Flathead Reservation, then moved to Washington briefly before settling back in Montana with Cecilia Wapshela, a ranch owner. All the while, Sundown made his living by breeding, raising, 'breaking' and selling horses. To make additional money, Sundown entered into rodeos and dominated his opponents, many of whom would withdraw after learning that he would participate. Jackson Sundown won many all-around cashpots, which takes the highest average scores from all events, though he was best known for bareback and saddle bronc horse riding. His appearance differed greatly from other rodeo riders as he wore bright colored shirts, large and elegant woolen chaps and tied his long braids under his chin. Sundown entered into rodeos across the west and in Canada until his early 50s.

In 1915 at age 52, he took third place in the all-around at the Pendleton Roundup and decided to retire from rodeo, which had wrecked his body. The following year, an artist who was doing a sculpture of Sundown convinced him to enter the Roundup one last time, an offer that Sundown only accepted after the artist agreed to pay the entry fee .[3] Sundown was twice the age of the other semi-finalists but advanced after high scores in the saddle bronc and bareback horseriding competitions. His final ride is an event of great mythology to this day among American Indians and rodeo aficionados. It is told that Sundown drew a very fierce horse named Angel and that the horse bucked so furiously that Sundown removed his cowboy hat and fanned the horse to get it to cool off, at which time he and the horse merged into one being. Sundown won the all-around event and became immortalized as a hero of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, which includes the Nez Perce. Sundown died of pneumonia 7 years later at the age of 59 and was buried at Slickpoo Mission Cemetery near Jacques Spur, Idaho. At the time of his death, the US Government did not consider Native Americans to be American Citizens.

A large gathering of Native Americans continues at the Pendleton Roundup in Pendleton, Oregon where a pow-wow is held during the Round-up in late September. Stories of Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kaun continue to fill the air at this event among the drumming, fry bread, gambling and rodeoing.


  1. Roadside History of Oregon, Gulick, Bill, 9780878422524, Mountain Press Publishing, 1991
  2. National Cowboys of Color Museum and Hall of Fame - Dallas/Ft. Worth at www.cowboysofcolor.org
  3. Alcorn,1983

  • Alcorn, R.L. and Alcorn, G.D. (1983), "Jackson Sundown, Nez Perce Horseman" in From Montana: the magazine of western history; v. 33, no. 4.
  • Fixico, D.L. (2006), Daily Life of Native Americans in the 20th Century.

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