South Dakota women sing, sign at WNFR as part of Native American celebration
On a night when bronc riders wrapped their hands, readying for their go in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, Syd Colombe prepared her fingers and palms for a different performance.
Colombe, a Native American from South Dakota, recited the Lord’s Prayer in Indian Sign Language at the Las Vegas event Dec. 5.
She was accompanied this year by a singer from the Cherry Creek-Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.
The ancient visual language of sign, once prevalent among the Plains Indians, is endangered, according to the Smithsonian Institution.
“The opening act is a Native American celebration,” says Colombe. “For sign, it’s all about letting my arms be soft and my fingers folded. Flowing, graceful movements.”
Colombe, 46, came up through the ranks of the NFR as a flag girl. She also performed with the Indian National Finals Rodeo.
Kelci Bends, 14, made her debut last Saturday. She was a little nervous but looking forward to the honor.
“I sing better in front of large groups that I don’t know,” Bends says. “It will be great to sing along with the sign, and maybe I will meet some rodeo stars.”
Bends is a former finalist in a state Junior Snow Queen talent contest, having placed in the top five after competing in local pageants. She practices during ranch chores, and can be heard singing while holding a gate open for her father.
“I used to sing in the car and stuff,” she says. “Then I entered a pageant and went on to the state finals and thought this could be fun.”
For Bends, the NFR performance is like taking her lifestyle on the road. “Ranching is a way of life for us, and this is just more of that.”
Readying for their big night, Bends and Colombe exchanged video by text and email to have virtual practice.
Colombe wore a buckskin dress. Bends wore a red leather dress with fringe. The only lights in the arena were spotlights on both women.
“We are working on the timing,” says Colombe, who now lives in Oklahoma where she is an event producer. Her father is the late Charlie Colombe of the Rosebud Reservation.
Bends is the daughter of Marty and Vicki Hebb Cherry Creek, S.D., and Keene and Amber Bends, Ashland, Mont. Hebb is a six time saddle bronc champ with the Indian National Finals Rodeo.
The Hebb family ranches on the Cheyenne River and raises bucking horses. Kelci has owned her own cattle since she was 9.
Prior to European colonization of the territory, Indian sign was used by tribes over a 1 million square mile area, from the Gulf of Mexico to Calgary, Canada. It bridged the gap where 40 different languages were spoken.
The current number of signers is unknown.
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