For most of us, cowboy culture is synonymous with Buffalo Bill Cody, the Lone Ranger, or Roy Rogers riding his noble steed across an open prairie. But the real thing was a lot less whitewashed, said Jeff DouVal, Oakland coordinator of the Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo. In his 25 years of working with the only nationally touring black rodeo, DouVal has amassed quite a bit of historical knowledge about African Americans on the Western frontier. Pickett, who in 1971 became the first black cowboy to be inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, was famous for a form of "bulldogging" (i.e., steer wrestling) that required him to come out of his saddle and bite the steer's lip in order to paralyze it. "Back in them days you had brush in open fields, and you couldn't really rope a steer," DouVal explained. Pickett's antics earned him a place in Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows, where he was known, appropriately, as the Dusty Demon.
And Pickett was in good company, said DouVal. A lot of the old trail drivers were black, as were many Pony Express riders who made speedy deliveries from Oakland to Sacramento. In fact, DouVal can name more than half a dozen legendary African-American frontiersmen (and women) right off the top of his head: Nat Love (aka "Deadwood Dick"), Bridgett "Bitty" Mason, Clara Brown, Bass Reeves, Jim Beckwourth, Isaiah Dorman, and Stagecoach Mary, who stood over six feet tall and was one of the greatest mule skinners that ever lived, he said. When Berkeley-born rodeo enthusiast Lu Vason attended Wyoming's Cheyenne Frontier Days in 1977 and found no trace of this African-American history — nor a single black cowboy, according to DouVal — he decided to launch a cattle-herding event of his own. Thus, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo was born. Explained DouVal: "This rodeo was not created to be ethnic in nature. It's just that this history is not in the history books."
Now a huge tradition, the Bill Pickett rodeo features seven events: bulldogging, steer undecorating (i.e., grabbing a ribbon off the steer's backside), bareback riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing (i.e., riding a fast cloverleaf without knocking over any barrels), and bull riding. Such tricks sure aren't easy, said DouVal. He knows from experience: DouVal's own son rode his first exhibition bull at age thirteen, got thrown off, and scrambled out of the arena with a mouthful of dirt and blood, ready for more. But given the amount of cowboys who come back year after year, paying their own entry fees, riding with dislocated shoulders, and perhaps not even winning but loving every minute of it, it's clear that black rodeo culture is here to stay. The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo hits Rowell Ranch Arena (9711 Dublin Canyon Rd., Hayward) on Saturday & Sunday, July 11 & 12. 2:30 p.m., $15-$22. BillPickettRodeo.com
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