Sweetheart of the Hell’s Half-acre Rodeo

In 1939, Shorty and Mary Mad Plume organized a homegrown rodeo in Browning as a community celebration. After a 21-year hiatus, the eldest Mad Plume daughter has revived the event to preserve and promote the Blackfeet culture of Indian rodeo.

By Tristan Scott
Historic image of Hell’s Half-acre Rodeo on the Blackfeet Reservation. Photo courtesy Mad Plume family

As far as rodeo arenas go, the Hell’s Half-Acre sounds like the kind of venue that could curl a calf-roper’s toes and bring even the most seasoned broncobuster to their knees. To Lynn Mad Plume, however, it’s a place for healing.

“It’s ironic because a lot of our family’s trauma took place in the same space we’re gathering at to heal,” Mad Plume, 31, the eldest sibling, said of the Hell’s Half-Acre Rodeo Arena, located along the Two Medicine River near Browning, just down the road from the Holy Family Mission Church — a location that prompted neighbor William “Bun-Num” Burd to joke that he “lived between heaven and hell.”

Constructed in 1939, Hell’s Half-Acre Arena was, in the beginning, “just a few chutes built by the Mad Plume boys,” according to Lynn Mad Plume, describing the sons of Richard and Agnes Mad Plume — Edward, better known as “Shorty,” as well as Frank and Lawrnece, who worked together to break horses. One day Shorty and Frank had a disagreement, so they then made a bet to resolve the matter. 

“They were to run on two horses each, whoever stayed on the longest wins,” Lynn Mad Plume said. “The story varies on who won but from that bet, but the Hell’s Half-Acre was born.”

“Our rodeo arena is one of the oldest, if not the oldest rodeo arenas on the Blackfeet Reservation,” she explained. “We have been around since 1939, with our annual Mother’s Day Rodeo beginning in the early 70s. But for 21 years we didn’t have any events. We lost our elders, there have been conflicts in our family. But as younger generations we are really determined to honor our grandparents’ legacy, the legacy of our elders and of our culture. A lot of our people don’t know about the cultural significance of the Hell’s Half-Acre Rodeo and we want to change that. Our culture has a history of land-based healing and our family is connected to this land.”

Historic image of Hell’s Half-acre Rodeo on the Blackfeet Reservation. Photo courtesy Mad Plume family

Indeed, members of the Blackfeet Nation have a deep and abiding relationship to rodeo competitions. The Indian National Rodeo Finals Hall of Fame is in Browning, dedicated to preserving the history of the sport. For Mad Plume, who serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Two Powers Land Collective, an organization dedicated to the power of land-based learning to promote wellness initiatives rooted in Blackfeet tradition, the opportunity to integrate her family’s rodeo into her organization’s mission was too important to pass up.

Even so, it’s been a lot of work.

Last year, Mad Plume and her siblings began plotting the return of the Mother’s Day rodeo in earnest, organizing a successful event that generated a groundswell of enthusiasm across the Blackfeet Nation and throughout the rodeo circuit, where in some corners the phrase “Home of the Original Indian Cowboy” is still synonymous with the Hell’s Half-Acre.

“We were a little rusty right out of the gate because we are younger and don’t have the same level of experience that our grandparents had, but the reception was amazing,” Mad Plume said. “We feel really good about the event coming into this year. It’s going to be a really big community event with lots of prizes. And most importantly, it’s going to be an opportunity for anyone and everyone to come heal.”

Across the West, many people associate rodeo culture with cowboys. But Mad Plume emphasizes its importance to Indigenous cultures for whom their relationship to horses and horsemanship has evolved for millennia. Mad Plume likens the return of the Hell’s Half-Acre Rodeo to “reclaiming that for ourselves.”

“We often hear people who come to the arena for the first time compare it to the real Wild West,” Mad Plume said. “We have a lot of natural talent and successful riders in our community, but we also have people who aren’t given an opportunity to develop those talents — people who don’t have nice trailers and all the horses and maybe don’t even have cowboy boots. This is a place for people who didn’t fit into the classic rodeo space.”

Hell’s Half-Acre Mother’s Day Rodeo

When: Sunday, May 12
Where: Two Medicine
Entry fee: $150 (entries open April 1)
More information: (406) 717-4752 or visit hellshalfacrerodeo.com