My introduction to the Indian National Finals Rodeo came in 2012, courtesy of the Bruised Head Brothers — Wright and Clint of the Blackfoot Tribe — at the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center. I am fascinated by sports names, and I thought theirs was the quintessential one for a rodeo cowboy.
The Not Afraids of Lodge Grass, Montana (pop: 428), might be a close second.
Gary Not Afraid of the Crow Tribe won the 1976 calf roping championship when the Indian Finals were held in Salt Lake City.
He died in an automobile accident in 1983, when he was 42.
Gary Not Afraid left behind six children: Dannelle, Mike, Michelle, April, Julie and Randy. His Hall of Fame bio said his legacy lives on through his children — he had six descendants competing for championship buckles in 2014, the year he was inducted into the INFR Hall of Fame in Browning, Montana.
Those at the Hall and everybody else who knew him said Gary Not Afraid would be proud of his offspring carrying on the cowboy way of life.
I thought that would make a good story.
It has turned out to be a tragic one.
Michael Not Afraid, Randy’s son, was dominating team roping in his region when he was killed in an auto wreck on July 5. He was 20 years old.
Randy Not Afraid, 50, died Oct. 9 — about two weeks before he was to compete in the team roping finals in Las Vegas. His obituary said he died at home, in his sleep, of natural causes.
“It was almost like he died of a broken heart,” sister Michelle said.
Demons to conquer
Michelle Armajo, 54, is a rodeo secretary. She also is employed by the Indian Health Service in Lodge Grass. She has worked there 30 years. She has witnessed far too much death because of The Addiction, as brother Mike calls the dependency on alcohol and drugs by Native Americans.
Alcohol abuse is responsible for 11.7 percent of all deaths among Native Americans compared to 5.9 percent among the rest of the world’s population.
Armajo said alcohol was a factor in the crashes that killed her father and nephew, and it was a factor in the death of her brother.
“Breaking the cycle of addiction is big,” Mike Not Afraid said. “If you can do it, you can prosper. You can live a long life and take care of yourself. If you can’t, it’s a hard road to go down.”
Mike Not Afraid said he had been down that road himself, though you would never know it by looking at him. He’s 57 and looks fit and trim and much younger than many of the cowboys who were strolling the South Point promenades before Thursday afternoon’s performance.
“When I started my own family, I didn’t want to take them down the same road,” he said of turning his life around.
He’s a rancher and a reclamation inspector and now he’s a de facto grandfather to 2-year-old Grayson Spotted Bear — the toddler’s father, Wes, a former three-sport high school athlete, was killed in the same crash that claimed Michael Not Afraid’s life.
Sad song to sing
“When we lost Michael, it was hard to even be around rodeo,” his aunt Michelle said. And then to lose her brother practically on the eve of the finals … that was almost too much for a family as close as theirs to endure. Randy Not Ready was supposed to rope with Michelle’s husband, Alfred, in Las Vegas.
“I think our thing was we all just needed to be together, and this was the place we could,” she said.
Tears formed in her eyes. Mike said they would be go on; it’s what Randy, Michael, Wes and their father, Gary, would have wanted. Going on amid adversity and hardship is the Not Afraid credo, he said.
“When my dad passed away, I was at a college rodeo. I just competed again. I won the team roping. Rodeo is ingrained in our lifestyle. We don’t quit. We just keep on with it.”
Their courage and resolve is admirable and seemingly has no depth. It’s still a profoundly sad story, and hearing the siblings tell it makes you heart ache.
On Oct. 6, three days before he went to the other side of camp, as the Crow People say, Randy Not Ready posted his last message on Facebook. It consisted of five words and an ellipses.
“Damn, I love my people …” it read.
Beneath the message was a video of two musicians from the Shaganappi Studio singing a familiar tune in a jaunty, honky-tonk style.
It was Elton John’s “Sad Songs (Say So Much).”
The first line of the first verse said there are times when we all need to share a little pain.
— What: 44th Indian National Finals Rodeo
— When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
— Where: South Point Arena and Equestrian Center
— Tickets: General admission, $30. https://oss.ticketmaster.com/