As part of the Pendleton Round-Up Rodeo in northeast Oregon, a Western pageant called “Happy Canyon” will kick off its 100th year run Wednesday. The show includes hundreds of volunteer performers, galloping horses, a live orchestra, Old West cowboy antics and real Native Americans.
But the 100-year-old show about tribal life before Lewis and Clark and the Oregon Trail, and Old West Pendleton portrays people with harmful stereotypes that are racist.
‘Very discomforting’ to an outsider
Some of it is just good fun. There’s a runaway marching band, shootouts and a fire in the brothel. But there are some uncomfortable moments too. Like when two white teenagers play Chinese men in pointy hats creeping through town, like cartoons, begging for money. Their begging in the play is one of many stereotypes of the Old West.
“Throughout the play there are some very strong stereotypes that I think to an outsider would be very discomforting,” said Kathryn Brown, the publisher of Pendleton’s East Oregonian newspaper.
Chinese workers came to Pendleton to work on the railroad in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were literally forced underground.
Brown said there were Chinese men working underground in Pendleton in the laundries -- and running other “underground” businesses like card rooms and bordellos.
Another Old West stereotype in Happy Canyon: a white girl taken hostage by a Native American war party at the end of the first act. She is eventually freed by cowboys and they jump to safety over a waterfall in an actual water-filled pool.
Roles handed down through generations
Linda Jones, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, plays a native berry picker in the first act. Her role in the play is traditional, handed down from her aunt. But her favorite part is when her role ends. The Native Americans are depicted as leaving to be put on the reservation.
“Yeah, sounds kind of different,” Jones said. “It’s surprising how many of us are like, ‘Oh thank goodness we’re finally done.’ It’s comments like that that we’re making to each other.”
In the second act, which Jones has never seen, the tone of the pageant dramatically flips. Rocks and cliffs become an old town site. And Vaudevillian Western chaos springs forth.
Some Native people who live nearby find the way it’s portrayed in Happy Canyon harmful and racist. They’re not even comfortable saying that on the radio, though. The town is small. And the play has run for 100 years.
Still, others like berry picker Linda Jones keep participating – year after year. She even camps in a teepee outside the rodeo stadium. And white people ask: can we see inside? She says, “Sure.”
“I’ll show them what we call our kitchen tent, and it just makes some of them just laugh out loud,” Jones said. “Because, ‘Oh you have all the comforts of home. You have a table, a chairs and stove and a two-burner!’”
This story was a collaboration with the East Oregonian newspaper. Visit their site for more photos and an interactive timeline about Happy Canyon.