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'When we are all happy and celebrating together, we really feel no differences'

Huge crowds from far and wide travel to Lil’wat Nation’s Open Rodeo.

Lil’wat Nation’s Open Rodeo drew visitors from across the globe between Saturday, May 18 and Monday, May 20. Organizers estimate it may have been the largest crowd to gather at the Lillooet Lake Rodeo grounds to date.

Rodeo admission came in at just $10 per person with under-10s and elders welcome in for free.  

The festivities kicked off with the time-honoured parade down Main Street in Mount Currie. Locals decorated their vehicles and dressed up for the occasion before moving towards the rodeo grounds for fun games including a watermelon-eating contest.

Organizer, Maxine Joseph Bruce, said the parade was one of her many highlights from a jam-packed weekend.

“The Nation comes out for the parade. Everybody was out. It’s just the greatest thing,” she said. “There are no prizes. It’s just about community. We just want our children and our youth to see this positivity.”

Cowboys and cowgirls later competed in bull riding, steer wrestling, bronc riding and ladies’ barrel-racing events. Competitors travelled from as far as Quesnel and the Okanagan Valley to saddle up. Bruce said the bleachers were entirely full on Sunday, though final numbers for the hectic three-day event have to be confirmed.

“Sunday was crazy. We gave away 2,000 tickets at the door. Then, we ran out of tickets,” laughed Bruce. “I think we had more people than other years.”

Bruce said people from all different backgrounds and ages attended the rodeo, excited to soak up the atmosphere.

“There were so many people there and nothing but positive feedback. People were talking different languages,” she said. “My husband was sitting with some Italians who didn’t know the rodeo rules, so he was telling them what was going on.”

New visitors were quick to inform the organizing committee they would be back again next year.

“We were chatting with a family from Prince George who had travelled here to compete in our rodeo,” said Bruce. “They were actually going on a family vacation this weekend and they opted to come to the rodeo. They said they would come back next year.”

The Lil’wat Nation flag was proudly displayed to mark the beginning of the event. Bruce said the rodeo lifts the spirits of the entire community.

“We are in a time of reconciliation. It just feels so good to see us representing ourselves and having so many young people involved,” she said. “It’s great to put something on that is so positive for our youth. It’s not an easy sport to win at. It takes a lot of practice and physical fitness and positive attitude. I just love that we had a young Pemberton lady carry our flag. I felt so honoured that she would do that. It was great to have our Chief, Dean Nelson, welcome the crowd every day.”

Local cowboys and cowgirls received a booming roar of support from the crowd. They also proved themselves some of the very best in the sport.

“One of our hometown boys, Kevin Wallace, won the bull-riding yesterday,” said Bruce.

Rodeo clown, Squirrelly Early Anderson, was a big hit with spectators young and old. He even tried to compete with the big wigs using his trusty garden hose as a lasso.

The annual Ski Bums competition gave total newbies the chance to swap the thrills of Whistler Blackcomb for a terrifying ride on a bull.

“Every year, for decades we have hosted the Ski Bums event. It’s a bit of a jackpot within our rodeo,” said Bruce. “We just open it up to those who have no experience, people who just want to give it a try. It’s an awesome opportunity for anyone to challenge themselves.”

The number of cowgirls at the rodeo is rising year on year in every age category.

“I think things are changing,” said Bruce. “This world of ours is changing. We are just as good as anybody.”

Bruce said the event helps bring people from Pemberton and Lil’wat Nation together for a few days of belly laughs and good food.

“We just need to open our hearts and minds to each other to make things fun,” she said. “We are no different. When we are all happy and celebrating together, we really feel no differences.”

The committee have already organized a dinner meeting to recap the event and make improvements for the next one. They hope to improve their marketing so even more families can enjoy the rodeo.  

“Our marketing is really ad-hoc. One of our club members will travel and post up our rodeo poster in different places,” Bruce said. “That’s our marketing!”

More space will be needed as the rodeo continues to grow. “We are asking our club members to put down any suggestions for next year,” said Bruce. “The most feedback I’ve received is that we need to build more bleachers!”