The 60th Annual Okmulgee Invitational Rodeo & Festival: A Visual Essay

I'm proud to see Robert waving the flag as the riders enter the stadium for the cowboy prayer.

Every year, people from all over flock to the rural Eastern Oklahoma town of Okmulgee for a weekend of calf roping, bull riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and much more. Started in 1956, the Okmulgee Invitational Rodeo & Festival is billed as the oldest predominantly black rodeo in the country, and one of the longest running rodeos in the state of Oklahoma. The Manual’s Creative Director, Ivan McClellan, was lucky enough to attend the 60th Annual Okmulgee Invitational Rodeo & Festival on August 7th and 8th. Ivan, being the creative sort, snapped many exquisite photos of the attendees, participants, and festivities. What follows is a collection of these photos, complete with Ivan’s profound and often hilarious comments.


A man and his horse walk across the field to relieve competition stress and seek reprieve from the heat.


Daryl Jackson has traveled over 50,000 miles this year competing in steer wresting competitions. He tells me about The Jackpot, an event on a ranch down the road. Winning at the rodeo will earn you a purse of $1200. At the Jackpot you can take home $7,000-$10,000. “People say you must be crazy to bulldog — I say riding a motorcycle down the highway is crazy. It’s all your perspective.”


Ankole-Watusi: a distinctive, long-horned breed of cattle native to Africa.


Horses roasting in the 105° heat graciously accept a cool spray down.


Walter Pam and riding club.


This plume of dark smoke from a pile of burning trash drifts ominously across the horizon for miles.


An Impala in front of the American Legion on Main Street.


Cowboy smile


Young lady sits in the bed of her mama’s truck.


Robert Crift lives less than a mile from the house where I grew up in Kansas City, KS. His hands are 12 grit, mine are diaphanous as dragonfly wings. His club, Down to Earth Riders, teaches young gang members the cowboy life. I ask him what I need to get started riding. He says I’ll need a $7,500 stallion like Summertime here, a couple of acres of land, a stable, food, and riding lessons.


I don’t know if this was a joke. Little man was left on this horse by his brother. When the horse became restless and stomped the ground, the woman in the front got in his brother’s ass.


“We’re racing the Pony Express.” I assumed he meant on a team currently not present. I was mistaken — she was the only female and the only white in the entire competition. When she enters the stadium the announcer squawks “and here’s a pretty little lady . . .” This is quite possibly the most inaccurate description of a human I’ve ever heard.


I picked the wrong place to be a vegetarian. Fried chicken taunts me at every turn.


Hiding out under the bleachers to escape the sun and discuss strategy.


Gorgeous white horse in the perfect golden hour light. I’m not sure if she’s vain or luring me in for a kick to the sternum.


Champions ride saddles commemorating the year and occasion of their victory. This is the best saddle they own, usually, worth around $1,800.


“Let me get your photo” He takes his Swisher Sweet out of his mouth and palms it. “Well, I wanted a photo of you with the cigar.” He puts it back in and chuckles.


The cowboy Bailey is a legend of sorts, mastering all rodeo events with the exception of calf roping, as he didn’t have the stomach for it. He’s a lover of animals. The rodeo this year almost went on without him, as one of his cows prolapsed her uterus while giving birth. He stitched her back up and waited for her appetite to return, which happened this very morning. “All of this is about the girls. I met a gal, a reporter from Paris, France. I came off that horse and she wanted to take me home with her. I couldn’t leave my cows.”


Riders are in an amiable mood now, but in a moment they’ll be in the mud, steeped in speedy chaos.


Daryl saddles his horse ahead of the competition. Today he is in no mood to chat.


A boy is scolded by his father for getting in the way of a rider. Discipline is essential lest he be absorbed in the ruckus.


In this heat, water is frighteningly relevant.


Hazer and Bulldogger are a team pitted against a single steer, whose only advantage is a head start and a blunted set of horns. The hazer keeps the steer straight, the bulldogger anticipates his move.


Launching from his horse at full speed, the bulldogger encompasses the steer, wrestling it to the ground.


When it’s supine, the clock stops and the steer trots unharmed back to its pen. It all lasts less than 6 seconds.


He was working hard with his daddy, making sure order was maintained and the beasts remembered their place.


“Are ya’ll gonna win?” “For sure!” “Yessir” “I mean there’s good teams, but we’re the fastest” They didn’t place. Hubris is what matters in America.


When making a portrait of a cowboy, you should always be lower than them. This way the viewer of the photo is staring up at the subject, making them appear heroic. I found a hole in the fence of one of holding pens and laid in it on the ground. The horses would come startlingly close to kicking me in the face.


A young girl getting her hair braided outside the Jackpot steer wrestling event. “You should take a photo after I’m done.” “How long will it take you?” “About 4 hours.” I sympathize with her head. I’ve been in that position, my sister pulling my hair into corn rows, raking that orange comb across my raw scalp.


I stumbled over my words, “She’s precious, who’s baby is that?” “Mine” the daughter said, confused, “I had her.” I suddenly felt very ignorant.


“I’d rather be hot than cold.”


I spotted these two gentlemen from about a quarter mile away and tore off running to catch them in front of the Orpheum. Rather than fleeing from the wild, sweaty, dust-covered man running at them with a camera out of an alley, they greeted me with the warmest smiles.


East Side Riding Club


I saw the middle and high school-aged girls in the “Pink Diamonds” shirts and cut offs earlier in the day and assumed they would be doing some mediocre choreography in the parade later. They walked down main street behind their teams cream-colored Cadillac rattling “Whip/Nae Nae” from the open trunk full of beats. I put my camera up and on cue they began to vigorously twerk. Someone behind me shouted “Ya’ll better work! I know what you can do” The girls on the side shook the crowd down for cash. I felt embarrassed and put my camera away.


Bright crimson Chevy Impala on 26′ rims so bright it sears your pupils. Not shown: 4 young men inside.


“R.I.P Clifton Po-Boy Hawkins.”


Patriots. Gentlemen. Warriors.


As the gloaming fades, the insects take over. Exotic, mindless critters created by Monsanto and seared by halogen.



The speakers cut out and a single voice picked up the refrain, followed by a smattering of men, then the entire audience. Why one voice gets the honor of squawking this song instead of the entire rawkus crowd is beyond me.


This young rider was undressed, and flatly nervous. He received no mercy from the crowd or the crowing announcer. “Looks like somebody forgot he had a race today.” He caught the baton and tried when his turn came. He’ll improve next year, I’m sure.


The riders’ entrance into the ring is as much preparation as it is theater. Horses prance and huff, licked wet with sweat. The riders are heroic, at least in posture, each with their own style of puffery.


Rounding the barrel is where the action is. They skim the corners, shoulders parallel to the ground, hip to hip with their competitor. If your speed is true, your teammate’s open hand awaits the baton. If you lose focus, you and your falling horse are fodder for the croaking commentator.


Beards are rare in this heat. It takes commitment to look so handsome.


Crabs in a bucket. These beasts are institutionalized.


The race is a wild affair. Crazed horses beating the mud, driven by their horseman. Hats and shirt tails flying, baton in fist like a standard.


A boy learns from his daddy. Riding, roping, manners, integrity, husbandry. Without a father, boys are left to cobble a heritage together themselves. This is the difference between them and me.