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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — On the Navajo Nation — where cowboy hats and big buckles are everywhere — three team ropers are creating a buzz with their success at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
Aaron Tsinigine, Derrick Begay and Erich Rogers have been at or near the top of the standings in the 10-day competition that ends Saturday. Tribal members have been celebrating the possibility that one of them could clinch the gold belt that's been elusive for anyone from the vast reservation.
"They're very proud of their cowboys being exposed in that fashion," said Brian Kensley, who works in Tsinigine's hometown of Tuba City. "It's very positive. They're doing something the community and the elders can relate to."
Rodeos on the Navajo Nation draw huge crowds of fans, spectators and competitors. It's a sport that ties into the Navajo tradition of rearing livestock as a means to survive. Grazing permits are treated as a form of land ownership. Mutton stew is a popular dish.
Begay, Tsinigine and Rogers grew up riding sheep, or mutton busting, competing in junior rodeos and lived together for a couple of years at Begay's parents' home In Seba Dalkai, Begay said.
In Las Vegas, they're referred to as Team Navajo, although each competes on separate two-person teams to rope the head and back legs of a steer in seconds while on horseback. The Navajo ropers consider themselves brothers.
"It would be pretty neat to see one of us win it," Begay told The Associated Press. "Whoever wins it will win it for the other two of us."
The ropers have seen a swell of American Indian fans cheer them on in front of their televisions at home, in Las Vegas hotels and at the arena where they're competing. Begay alone has nearly 45,000 followers on Facebook.
Tribal President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez have been in the stands watching them and were introduced during the competition. The Navajo Nation held a reception for the ropers Thursday in Las Vegas and donated travel funds and gifted them boots and clothing, said Wanda Nelson the Navajo Nation Fair office.
Rogers told a story of him and Begay at a rodeo in Red Bluff, California, joking with Begay's father, a man synonymous with rodeo, about whether his horse would cooperate. Begay's father assured them the horse was fine — it was an old man's horse. With a win in hand, they went to the Chinle Fair for another rodeo.
"It's been an amazing journey for all of us, especially all the people behind us now that we're here," said Rogers, of Round Rock. "We're doing good."
L.A. Williams, a well-known Navajo sportscaster, has been relaying the action in Las Vegas to listeners of a Show Low station that reaches much of the western side of the Navajo Nation. The ropers' work has inspired young Navajos who view them as celebrities and has officials thinking about revamping rodeo grounds on the reservation to be more fitting of the cowboys.
"It's a tremendous amount of pride that our people are capable to compete professionally at the national level with the very best in the country," said Robert Joe, a onetime rodeo competitor and Begaye's chief of staff.
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