Rodeo is an empowering sport. It emboldens communities. It forges friendships. It brings honor to every athlete that rides into the arena. The sport’s overwhelming positivity is unlike any other, with every contestant provided support and applause.
Rodeo culture is one big family. And in Montana, it appears to be a family that is growing larger and more diverse. At the 44th Annual Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals in Great Falls, more than 1 in 10 qualifying athletes are Native American.
“I think there have been a lot of opportunities for young people in recent years. The INFR [Indian National Finals Rodeo] does a really good job encouraging young kids to participate. I think we’re going to continue to see more [Native Americans] in professional rodeo,” says JC Crowley, who is entering his 24th circuit finals as a tie-down roper.
Hailing from Poplar, Crowley spends most of his time as a working cowboy on his family’s cattle ranch. If a horse shows potential beyond daily chores, he’ll train it for the arena— which is easier said than done. Depending on the weather, he may have to drive an hour west to Glasgow just to practice on dry dirt.
“There’s a lot of travel,” he says. “I don’t mind. It gives me a reason to get out.”
As a third-generation rancher and roper, Crowley says he’s been afforded opportunities that other Native American athletes may not have. It’s one of the reasons he’s pleased with the work the INFR is doing to promote and preserve the advancement of Native American athletes in professional rodeo.
Started in 1976 (just two years prior to the MPRC), the INFR was founded to “provide, promote, and preserve the advancement of Professional Indian Rodeo by empowering families, youth, and communities through positive role modeling, educational opportunities, competition, culture, and tradition.” Sanctioning nearly 700 rodeos nationwide and offering annual prize money exceeding one million dollars, the INFR is—by far—the largest and oldest Indian Rodeo Organization in the world. More importantly, the INFR provides outreach to youth rodeo associations, including the National High School Rodeo Association and the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, creating a natural progression for athletes to get into professional rodeo.
Crowley also notes that the INFR provides a natural progression out of professional rodeo with its senior rodeo events.
“You don’t ever have to quit; you just sort of fade away,” he laughs.
Over the years, Crowley has qualified for the RAM Finals a couple times and come close to winning the MPRC, but what he’s most proud of is the longevity of his career. He hopes to continue to have success in juggling ranch work, tie-down roping, and family life.
It helps, of course, that his family shares his aspirations.
“A lot of it with rodeo, Native or not, comes down to family,” he says.
His father, Darryl Crowley was an MPRC calf roping champion and served on the MPRC board for many years.
His sisters, Katie and Amber, compete in barrel racing and breakaway roping (respectively). His wife, Heather, is an accomplished rodeo cowgirl in her own right and is competing in the 44th Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals as a WPRA barrel racer.
“My kids enjoy it too,” adds JC Crowley.
While his personal philosophy is that “people are people,” he can’t help but smile at the wave of young Native American cowboys on the horizon.