'Chicken pull' revives traditional event

By Quentin Jodie
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 7, 2012

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(Courtesy photo - Smith's Rodeo Photos)

TOP: After scooping up the gunny sack and stuffing it inside his shirt, Rough Rock, Ariz., bull rider Ivan Sells makes an attempt to flee his competitors.

BOTTOM: Tohatchi, N.M., cowgirl Bailey Bates rounds the final turn and is chased by Wrangler National Finals qualifier Derek Begay at the Dean C. Jackson Memorial Arena in the Navajo Chicken Pull event.

I n honor of the Treaty Days Celebration, the Navajo Nation Fair made an attempt to reenact one of rodeo's most treasured event - the chicken pull.

For some, the chicken pull was considered the heart and soul of rodeo and to help commemorate this forgotten event eight contestants took part in a reenactment and at the Dean C. Jackson Memorial Arena last Sunday afternoon.

And to help convey its colorful history, rodeo master of ceremonies Jay Begaye set the table by describing the details of the event.

"Chicken pull got started from the Navajo Tribe," Begaye said. "It was well known especially among the Navajo and it usually happened in a flat area.

"Back then it always had a lot of competitors and there was no rules so you had to be very careful," he said. "Everybody who got entered had a chance to pull a real live chicken out from ground."

According to Begaye, the chicken was buried neck-deep and usually the competition got started with the most experienced "chicken puller" going first.

"But for the sake of the animal, they made a switch and used a gunny sack instead," he said.

After a contestant successfully retrieves the sack, anything goes as all contestants try to grab it and win the prize.

On Sunday, a sack was used that was filled with oil. One by one, the eight contestants tried to wiggle out the sack to no avail.

The objective was to scoop up the sack and make one lap around the arena.

On his second attempt, Rough Rock, Ariz., bull rider Ivan Sells finally solved the riddle and successfully pried up the sack. He then tucked the brown grainy sack inside his shirt.

Needless to say, it was predictable that he wasn't going anywhere since he was riding a black Shetland pony.

"I thought I was going to get away," Sells admitted.

Instead he made it to the north end of the arena before he was literally attacked.

With everyone eyeing the $110 prize, a melee ensued and Sells had his shirt ripped open as the sack fell to the ground.

The situation then grew chaotic as Mexican Springs steer wrestler Ben Bates got pushed off his horse. Somehow the sack ended up in his niece's hand as Bailey Bates tossed the sack to her brother Michael, who then raced down the south end of the arena.

But as he was ready to make that final turn, he got cornered.

Yet Michael avoided the same fate as Sells as he cleverly tossed the sack back to his sister, who finished off the final leg of the race.

"We didn't talk about that," Bailey said when asked if the game plan involved working together. "We were just out there to have fun."

As the only cowgirl in the event, Bailey said she hadn't planned on participating as she jokingly told her family that she was going to give it a try.

"I was teasing them on the way over here from home," she said. "But when I heard my name I knew that I couldn't back down."

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