Legendary rodeo career on display at museum

Kathryn Swan J-C correspondent
The Osage County Historical Society Museum recently added an exhibit highlighting Bruce Tiger’s rodeo career. Bruce Tiger is an Osage Indian cowboy who excelled as a bull and bronc rider. Kathryn Swan/J-C correspondent

The Osage County Historical Society Museum recently added an exhibit highlighting Bruce Tiger’s rodeo career. Bruce Tiger is an Osage Indian cowboy who has a colorful and award-wining history. Born in Fairfax, he is the son of the late Jim and Judy (Graves) Tiger. Now living in Pawhuska, Tiger was involved with Phase I of the Osage Nation sponsored Bird Creek Farm agricultural project.

Tiger said he never paid much attention to his rodeo achievements until about three years ago when he was approached by the Oklahoma Cowboy Hall of Fame about his history and awards.

“As much as I appreciated the Cowboy Hall of Fame’s interest in me, my first love is Osage County. That’s why I contacted Museum President Joyce Lyons about donating my collection, especially since this unique museum focuses on our County’s diverse history of cowboys, Indians, pioneers, oil and Boy Scouts.

“I was five years old when I knew I wanted to be a cowboy. I created my first makeshift bull with a belt wrapped around my bed pillow. When Dad saw this, he asked me what I was doing. It was then that I told him I wanted to be a cowboy and ride bulls. About two weeks later, he came to me and said, ‘Let’s go.’

“Dad took me to the Wynona Roundup Club where I attempted to ride a small stag. I lasted for about three or four jumps. He told me if I wanted to ride bulls, I had to start out on animals like this. Thinking I had given up, he and Mom went to their truck but I decided to give it another try. With the help of another cowboy, I successfully rode that stag! When I got to the truck, Dad congratulated me and said, ‘Son, we are very proud of you. You just showed us that you have what it takes to be a champion!’ I never forgot that day.”

Encouraged, Tiger went on to ride his first calf in Warren, Oklahoma, and quickly became immersed in the National Little Britches Rodeo Association for kids 5-18. Through the OJRH – he participated in two national finals and was offered me a full scholarship at Southwestern State University where he studied Art and Physical Education for three years. He also joined the Southwest Cowboy Association as a professional bronc rider.

Tiger’s exhibit shows him riding the bronc that garnered him the 1977 Central Plains Saddle Bronc Riding Championship. He said, “I was predicted to win the Bull Riding Championship but, as luck would have it, I drew a bull that didn’t buck enough and came in second. My opponent had a better bull. It was still a close race. (Laughing) What’s ironic is that I didn’t know I had won the bronc championship until after I got home. Dad called to ask why I left the awards banquet. When I told him I didn’t win the bull riding event, he said, ‘Son, you won the Bronc Riding Championship.’ I was so excited that I drove all the way back to Weatherford from Fairfax. My saddle is still at Mom’s house along with a number of trophy buckles.

“My Dad was also a bull rider and friends with the legendary Jim Shoulders. I went to Mr. Shoulders’ bull riding school three times. When I won an NFR bull riding championship, Mr. Shoulders told my Dad, ‘You’ve got yourself a real cowboy there Mr. Tiger.’

During his rodeo career, Tiger amassed 30 championships, 16 saddles, a horse trailer and close to 1,000 buckles, among other prizes. “I gave quite a few of my buckles away to friends,” continued Tiger. “When Mom asked me why I was giving my trophies away, I told her that I couldn’t take them to Heaven with me.” Tiger selected a small OJRH buckle for the exhibit. It’s one of his favorites as it is tied to the memory of a dear friend, Blake Sisk, who died unexpectedly last year. Tiger had given Blake that buckle a year before her death. He was greatly affected by her passing. When her parents asked him if he would like to have the buckle back, he gladly accepted it and chose to include it in his exhibit as a tribute to their friendship.

The Tiger exhibit also features one of the dozens of custom-designed, hand-made cowboy shirts created by his Judy Tiger. “Mom made all of my shirts and even made matching bandanas for me and my little Chichewa who accompanied me to the rodeos.

“Looking back, I appreciate God’s gifts and the many friends I made along the way. I credit both my parents for their support and love. Mom is a devout Christian woman. I believe her prayers helped me survive sixteen broken bones, three surgeries, including a new hip. These were hazards of my rodeo career. Dad passed away six years ago. How I wish he could see this exhibit that is the result of his coaching. The exhibit photo of me riding a rank bull was selected in honor of my Dad.

“I had attempted to ride that bull on three separate occasions. He managed to buck off everyone who attempted to ride. Dad said if I wanted to succeed in this challenge, I needed to build my endurance. He had me intensify my training, lifting weights, running, etc. That bull wasn’t very big but he was stout and fast in his moves and kept jerking the rope out of my hands. Dad’s advice and my hard work paid off as I had a successful ride on my fourth attempt, earning 91 points.

“As a child, I used to think Dad was mean to me with his strict training. Now, I realize he was no different than a good football coach. He certainly knew what he was doing. Dad also coached my little sister Paula who became a State High School Runner, went to college and teaches track at the Woodland High School in Fairfax. I’m real proud of her.”

Speaking of Paula brought up another memory from his high school days. Tiger said he had no intention of getting involved in track. That was before he met an outstanding coach named Larry Coker (NFL Miami Hurricanes) in 1976. “When I told Coach Coker I wasn’t a runner, he proved me wrong by making me a sprinter. When I had my first meet, I was this skinny Indian kid competing with muscled-up runners BUT I won!”

Tiger said he wasn’t always on top. “In college, I was somewhat of a celebrity because of my rodeo career. Then, I got to partying and got in trouble. That was the most embarrassing time in my life as I made a fool of myself. I was on a downward spiral that lasted for about 15 years. Finally, I had a talk with God and said, ‘I’m a better man.’ I forgave myself and asked God to help me get back on track.

“Recently I was struggling to write a song about my late friend Blake when a friend approached me with a special gift – an acoustic guitar and case. I have several standard guitars but this acoustic instrument was incredible. I believe this was part of God’s intervention in my life and have started singing and song writing again.”