Throughout the decades, the prominence of Native American men and women has declined. Undoubtedly, this is because of the horrific suffering they have endured due to colonization, as well as the widespread struggles on reservations nowadays. While foreign colonizers tried hard to strip away the culture of Native Americans, the people fought hard to preserve their traditions and customs. Thanks to activists, scholars, historians, and support from individuals around the world, Native Americans are slowly but surely gaining back the strength and dignity that was stolen from them a long time ago. 

Native American women have a particular and important role to play within society. Although many still suffer discrimination, a large handful of these women are showing that they are able to stand strong and inspire the generations to come, regardless of what has happened in the past.

Sharmaine Weed, the protagonist of Pure Grit, a heart-rending documentary directed by Kim Bartley, is one of those inspirational young women. Sharmaine lives on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and she is a champion in bareback horse relay racing. She is determined, passionate, and full of energy. Although life didn’t spare her from suffering, including sexual abuse, Sharmaine is a woman that many of us could easily draw inspiration from. 

Prior to the Fragments Festival, Sharmaine and I sat down over Zoom to talk about her experience. During the interview, I was truly educated about the tradition of horse relay racing, her relationship with horses, and what we should all learn about Native Americans to understand who they are. 

 Image © Mark A. Curtis

How did you come across Kim Bartley and why did you decide to be a part of the documentary, Pure Grit?

I have always been an open-minded person and given people the benefit of the doubt. I am a very vibrant person and my senses are quite strong. My sharp senses are not used as a way to study people, but they are usually used as a defence mechanism. Not to mention, she [Kim Bartley] had this black outline of what looked like a person holding a camera as her profile picture when she added me on Facebook. But it wasn’t a scary kind of vibe, so I accepted her as a friend. She messaged me explaining how she was in the U.S. and witnessed some bareback horse relay racing while filming another documentary which had to do with the North Dakota Pipeline Access when the government wasn’t respecting the tribal rights of their land. 

She was interested in the horse culture that the Irish and Native Americans seem to share. Kim then revealed her intentions to film a female bareback racer. My sister and brother just had their horse accidents at the time, so I wasn’t ready to race yet. I told her about some other female racers and she spoke to them, but she still found my story interesting. So, she said she would wait for me whenever I was ready, and then we proceeded to meet and began filming the documentary.

What’s the importance of bareback horse relay racing in Native American culture?

Horses have always been a part of our history since the very beginning. Researchers found a horse skeleton in Utah determined to be at least 16,000 years old. They were our transportation before cars came. The Indian Relay Racing within our Shoshone tribe call it the Chief Washakie Messenger. It was a lot similar to the “Pony Express”. That’s how they delivered messages or mail back then. The fastest rider would deliver messages from our tribe to another tribe, which we call the Chief Washakie Messenger. He was the leader of our people.

Image © Courtesy of Kim Bartley (SR Colm O’Meara, Sharmaine Weed and Kim Bartley in Wyoming)

Pure Grit not only depicts the story behind bareback horse relay racing, but it also tells your personal story. Weren’t you afraid to give away so much about yourself for the audience to see, and perhaps to judge?

It was very difficult to talk about the past, but it needed to be done. I know that many people live with the struggles I spoke about, but they don’t know how to deal with them. I felt confident speaking about my experiences because it can be helpful for others. Most people feel alone in those types of situations, but maybe if they can relate to my story then it could make them stronger. I want them to feel less shame and realise nothing was their fault, or believe that things can change when they are at the edge. Even though I am thankful not to experience it anymore, there might be someone out there who sees the documentary, who might still be stuck in their situation. It’s hard to overcome, especially if it’s someone the family trusts and they won’t always believe you. That’s when you step outside the family to get help.

You come across as a strong, determined, and very inspirational woman. After learning about your painful past, how did you manage to keep your head-up while pursuing your career as a bareback horse relay racer?

When I am on that horse, racing so fast, it’s a feeling that nothing in the world can amount to. That love was found way before I began racing. I owe it to the countless adventures I had on my grandpa’s ranch and pastures, and swims through the creek with my cousins and nephews and nieces. Animals don’t speak, but they do have a character and a spirit. Horses, in particular, are very vibrant with energy. They can sense when you’re scared and they can sense many other things as well. Horses helped save my life and I feel like they gave me a purpose to live. It really is a gift to work with horses. 

Many times, I have raced on horses after practicing with them for just one time. I raced for a lot of teams and won, and it gave me a good reputation. But I had my struggles, too. I was in and out of jail, and I am thankful that my life has changed for the better. Especially now that I am alcohol-free. I realised that I have a lot of talent to lose and I don’t want to do that, I want to use it. Children would always approach and observe me. Due to this, I had to do better and set the best example I could.  So, here I am, a changed person, still continuing on with my passions.

Image © Jeb Schenck / Underground Films Commissioning Ltd

How does the training of a bareback horse relay rider look like?

Personally, all these years of training still leave me sore. I think that’s the hardest part – the conditioning. My gym teacher in high school always said that working out slower builds muscle, and that theory has always been right for me.

Riding a horse without a saddle must be an incredible experience, not only does the horse feel your body and movements, but as a rider, you can also experience that sensation. What’s your personal relationship with horses, your race horse in particular?

You’re using every muscle in your body, from your head to your feet. Without a saddle, there is still a seat. Then, you use your legs to hang on. I always use my voice when riding a horse, and talk to them while working the reins. You will sometimes come across horses that want to run really fast, and you have to hold them back the entire exercise. Always show them love and they will love you back. That’s the connection I have with them, and when I am racing, I am rooting for them and encouraging them, saying “Come on boy! You got this!”. That is the way I treat a horse. 

What would you like for the audience to take away after watching Pure Grit?

I hope that, aside from all the sad things, it could be inspiring, that somehow it could push others a little harder to be what they are destined to become. And to never give up! The great spirit above made day and night for a reason – every day we get a chance to live again. Some don’t get that chance, so we have to take advantage of the time we are given. Learn to see the positive things in negative situations.

As Europeans, films like Pure Grit are able to teach us about Native American culture, tradition, and life in general. As our education is limited when it comes to your culture, what are some key things we should be aware of and should know about Native American culture, tradition, and lives?

I would like you to get a view of us as Native Americans and know the lifestyle we live. Many people within our own country don’t really know what it’s like. I hope you can understand that we still exist and we are still holding onto some of our culture as tight as we can. There are deeper things – we as a community deal with a lot of health issues because a lot of the sickness brought onto our people is hereditary.

It’s a sad situation, but it’s the truth. There is a lot of poverty on reservations, which is a clear problem across the United States. Some tribes were so small that after a while they were federally unrecognised anymore. History nearly wiped us out, but we are still here fighting to make a living. As long as our hearts beat, our Ancestors’ DNA is still alive!

Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler

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