Semper letteris mandate
Cowboys and Indians.
That simple phrase has evolved throughout the 20th century from being an innocent children’s game to a political hot button capable of starting heated fights.
Except in Maple Creek.
“In Maple Creek they’re still comfortable saying ‘cowboys and Indians,’” says Joe Braniff, seven-time winner of the Canadian Professional Rodeo Associations’ Announcer of the Year award from 2001 through 2007.
This comfort has brought about a unique and highly successful cultural event in Saskatchewan that, sadly, is almost unheard of in the rest of Canada: The Battle of the Little Big Puck.
“It’s a great show,” says Braniff, “but it’s also about the two cultures and how they get along.”
And why exactly do they get along?
“I think it’s mutual respect,” Braniff answers. “The Nekaneet band has always been independent. They didn’t want to leave the hill area, and the old time ranchers back in the day respected them for that, and did what they could to make sure they got a fair shake from the government.”
This mutual respect has led to a long-time friendship between the settlers and natives, including many a good time spent at the Commercial Hotel sharing a few drinks.
Which is how the Battle of the Little Big Puck began.
“It was actually a couple of the cowboys and a couple of the Nekaneet,” says Braniff. “They were sitting in the bar together on a hot July day and they were arguing about who were the best ropers and riders, and pretty soon it turned around to who were the best hockey players. They made a bet, and that’s how they had the first Battle of the Little Big Puck.”
The cowboys were Nick Demchenko and Tom Reardon. The Nekaneet were Raymond Anderson and Wilbur Anderson, if Baniff’s memory serves him well.
The first game was held at the old Maple Creek rink, which has been bought by a business since the new rink was built a few years ago.
As with any cultural or sporting event, The Battle of the Little Big Puck has its traditions.
To start with, there are rules on who can play.
“To play for the Nekaneet they have to be a member of the Nekaneet band or reside on the reserve, or be affiliated,” Braniff explains. “Cowboys have to have, or have had membership in a recognized rodeo association – a rodeo card. You have to reside in a certain area. The farthest east we generally go is Piapot, south is Consul, west is Maple Creek and north is Golden Prairie or so.”
Given that you have the proper “credentials,” how do you join up to play?
“You’re going to laugh at this,” Braniff says. “You show up on game night with your equipment. And you’ll get the same amount of ice time as anyone who’s been there for 20 years, even if you’re skating on your ankles. It used to be that some guys couldn’t stand up on their skates. Lately everybody plays hockey so it’s a pretty decent game. It’s non-contact, like rec hockey. But the intensity is there.”
Fittingly, the linesmen who watch for violations of the rules are drawn from the same outfit that have been guarding the cowboys and Indians for generations: the RCMP.
The third period, says Braniff, “is kind of a showcase.” It is at this point that the costumes come out in full gear.
“The Nekaneet come out in full regalia over their hockey equipment. The cowboys come out in cowboy hats. I’ve even seen guys with spurs on their skates. And during the third period the referee might come out in something like a tiny cowboy hat. Mounties wear their red serges and Stetsons.”
But wait – there’s more.
“In the third period there’s a stoppage and the Nekaneet drummers come out and dance and sing, and the whole team dances around them.”
Still, as Braniff says, it’s really about the two cultures.
“The Nekaneet band was the last band to receive their treaty rights. They never signed anything. And it was recent history when they received their rights. They had always worked on different ranches and there has always been that special relationship between the Nekaneet band and the members of the community.”
This relationship goes back to the 19th century.
“There’s probably been members on both teams that have had families out here at that time. Certainly that’s true of the Nekaneet of course. My grandfather was out here in 1880. And numerous others. Their great-grandfathers probably knew each other.”
It’s this shared sense of community and belonging that keeps the game civil, despite the fact that it’s a contest between the cowboys and Indians.
“The uniqueness of it is what separates this event from any other,” he says. “Only in Maple Creek could you have a game billed as being between the cowboys and Indians, have two cultures come in cheering for their own teams and not have an all-out brawl. We’ve had different Mounties come out as linesmen and when they’re told about it they say, Holy – there’s going to be a blood bath!”
Not only is there no blood bath, but according to Braniff, there’s never been a fight.
“Tempers have flared,” he admits, “but it’s not to do with cowboys and Indians, but to do with hockey.”
Of course, the separation between cowboys and Indians isn’t always as clear cut as some believe it to be.
“We use the catchphrase cowboys and Indians, but there have been some tremendous cowboys from the Nekaneet band. Both ranch and rodeo.”
From its start, The Battle of the Little Big Puck has been a fundraiser for one cause or another. This year the money will go to the Southwest Integrated Healthcare Facility (SIHF) being built in Maple Creek.
An amazing cross-cultural event that’s almost 40 years old now, started by four bar patrons comfortable with using the term “cowboys and Indians.”