Rodeo queen wants to bring attention to missing and murdered Indigenous people

Shayla Conner

CASPER — Shayla Conner was only a teenager when her cousin Hanna Harris went missing. Nine days later, authorities found Harris’ body on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation rodeo grounds in Montana.

Conner, an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, her family and the community mobilized. They marched, visited the Capital and strategized at family dinners. After six years of lobbying, former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed Hanna’s Act into law in 2019, speeding up investigations and searches on the reservation with funding from the state’s justice department.

Conner, who now lives in Greybull, learned firsthand that raising awareness can lead to change. So when she decided to compete for Miss Sheridan WYO Rodeo Queen, she knew she wanted to advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people.

And in a fate-sealing way, she earned the rodeo queen crown in 2019 — 61 years after her grandmother Carolyn Small Martin won the title, marking the third time an Indigenous woman has received the honor.

Conner has taken a different path than other rodeo queens.

She chose to use her platform to bring attention to a difficult subject laced with uncomfortable truths: that Indigenous people go missing, and are murdered, at higher rates than the rest of the population, but often with considerably less attention.

“Wherever I went, I’d always put red handprints on (both) of my horses shoulders, then people would come up to me and ask ‘why did you put a red handprint on your horse?’” Conner said. “The red handprint symbolizes the missing and murdered Indigenous women. And I’m representing them by getting my story out, so people can hear what’s happening in my community.”

Conner seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of her grandmother, who still ranches to this day and comes from a long lineage of ropers, saddle bronc and bareback riders.

“The pageant consists of modeling two outfits,” Conner said. “Elegant and then a classic or fashion forward. Then you do horsemanship as your talent. So you do a reining pattern, and then, for Sheridan, I did a freestyle pattern, meaning whatever I wanted to do.”

Judges and board members ask a range of questions: How many bones does a horse have? Who is the president of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association? What’s your stance on COVID-19?

While winning a rodeo pageantry is hard enough, queening itself, some say, is even more challenging.

For Conner, even making time to get off her horse to drink water is challenging on rodeo nights. Conner’s rodeo day might start between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. with feeding and watering four different horses. She competes in slack, goes home, cleans up and gets dressed for the rodeo. She returns to the rodeo around 4 p.m., three hours before the evening portion kicks off.

“I get my horses saddled and painted (a red hand print on them to show solidarity with missing and murdered Indigenous peoples.) I go into the arena to do my flag sponsorship, leave the arena, and put my flag away, and I go back into the arena and do my queen wave.”

On top of that she has to return to the arena, retrieve her flag and stand in for Indian relays. She drops her flag off and clears up cattle. The rodeo ends around 10 p.m., but her day still isn’t over. She has to gather her horses and put them in the barn. By the time she gets to bed it’s 1 a.m.

“I get back up, and do it again,” she said.

Native Americans have a long history of participating in the Sheridan rodeo. The Crow and the Northern Cheyenne participated in Native American pageants, but were later relegated to vaudevillian acts.

In Montana, nearly 6,000 Indigenous people were reported missing between 2017 — 2019, and nearly 80% were under the age of 18, according to a Montana Department of Justice analysis.

“This report was really eye-opening, but I think it confirmed what a lot of us knew already that was happening out there,” Sen. Affie Ellis — a Cheyenne Republican, citizen of the Navajo Nation and co-chair of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Affairs — said at the time.

The January report also cited negative news coverage as an impediment. Only 30% of Indigenous homicide victims receive media coverage compared with 51% of white homicide victims.

And that issue has been clearly apparent with the recent disappearance and murder of Gabby Petito, a white woman from Florida. Petito went missing at Grand Teton National Park while on a road trip with her boyfriend, touching off a social media frenzy and extensive media coverage.

In the aftermath, commentators noted that more than 700 Indigenous women had gone missing in Wyoming over the past decade while receiving only a fraction of the attention.

But rodeo and raising awareness for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples movement is still in her future. So is diversifying the rodeo and pageantry ranks.

“I think (my reign) can open doors for other girls. Like maybe from the Cheyenne Reservation, or the Crow Reservation,” she said. “If they think, ‘If Shayla can just go in there, then maybe I can just go in there too.’”

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