Kelly O and I traveled to Omak, Washington, last weekend with a group of women to attend the annual Omak Stampede and Suicide race—where cowboys, Native Americans, and carnival freaks come together to concurrently put on Eastern Washington's grandest rodeo, most contentious horse race, four days of pow wows, and a carnival for the kids.

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  • omakstampede.org
It's far past sunset when the suicide race begins: There's a drum roll, a gunshot, then over a dozen shadowy riders and horses crest the flood-lit hill, gallop down a 62-degree slope, and plunge into the Okanogan River. Once across, riders race to the finish line in the rodeo arena. The run in its entirety lasts maybe three minutes. The rider with the fastest time at the end of the weekend's four runs wins $1,000.

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Animal rights groups hate the suicide run and sporadically try to get it canceled permanently (most notably after 2004's races, which killed four horses). This year—the race's 76th anniversary—the river is high and when the horses hit the water nearly all of them go under, some screaming, as the crowd gasps and cheers in the dark. In past years, horses have snapped their legs on the steep, 225-foot slope.

Below, you'll find an excellent video Kelly O made of the 2009 race. But during the two nights we catch the race, injuries are minimal: a handful of horses lose their riders but swim with the herd anyway, emerging on the other side and running into the arena. (The riders, who are all required to wear life vests—but not helmets—are picked up by life boats.)

Video, including Suicide Race footage

Photos by Kelly O

The Colville tribal members view it as tradition. And for the dozens of tribal members and cowboys who compete each year, it's a test of their horsemanship skills. "It didn't matter that I didn't win—I proved to the world that I belonged on that horse," said Ralph, a Colville man who raced in the early '90s.

belt.jpg2010 suicide racer, left.

The Omak Stampede, which precedes the suicide race each night, blends Canadian, First Nations and United States traditions in honor of the rodeo's participants and the crowd it attracts.

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The arena plays the Canada, First Nations, and United States national anthems.

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Bareback riders demonstrate their skill.

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Princesses abound.

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o_9148.jpg"I dislocated my shoulder running through the dark." Jerian Ashley, Tonasket Rodeo Queen

o_9136.jpg"I went to the top of the suicide run. It's not that bad. I believe I could do it. I think it'd be fun to fight for it." Jay St Jaques, Maple Creek Indian Princess from the Nekaneet band.

clown.jpg"When do you head out for your European tour?" asked one of two young women who followed J.J. Harrison, the Clown, back to his trailer after Friday night's rodeo.

o_9131.jpg"We're losing cowboys—it's a big expense to travel the circuit," Jim Glover, former director of the Omak Stampede. "But the ice cream's good."

o_9141.jpg"Everything goes right out there and it still hurts. I've broke 60 bones and I have no feeling in my left arm." Shannon Miller, 29-year-old bareback bronc rider from NM.

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The Indian encampment.

o_9164.jpg"Your dad and your grandpa traditionally make [your regalia]. I like horses and stars, so they kind of ran with it." Marvin.

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o_9200.jpgThis little boy likes Cars.

Carnival workers lining up for work. "Have a spec-fun-tacular day" is listed pretty far down past "shower daily."

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o_9102.jpgDave: "I needed work, so I taught my roommate how to feed my tropical fish and joined the carnival."

O_9103.jpg"Play my game. I've got a bad toe."

"I met Bob at a wet t-shirt contest at a Harley rally," says a woman named Brenda. "I knew he lived in Washington, so I left Minnesota with another dude and followed him out here. Well one day, who shows up at our door but Bob? And Bob says to the guy I'm living with, 'Either we're going to share a beer or beat the shit out of each other but either way, I'm leaving with your old lady.' And then he says to me, 'Pack your stuff.' We've been married for eight years now and that's the straight-up truth."

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o_9143.jpg"It took me 30 tries to win this."

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