In reality, Mel Sampson, who succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease on Dec. 11, 2020, grew up more as a fisherman than as a roper, but spending time with kids who did grow up cowboy eventually led him to team roping.
“Mel was more or less like a self-taught roper,” said Sam Bird—first-ever Indian National Finals Rodeo Team Roping World Champion, eventual INFR President and commissioner, and uncle to five-time NFR qualifier, Dustin Bird. “He roped really good for a guy who took it upon himself to learn. Him and his wife, Betty, they roped together for years.”
A member of the Yakama Nation, Sampson, who lived near White Swan, Washington, hosted the White Swan Rodeo for probably 45 years, Bird thinks.
“Cowboys from all over the United States and Canada would go to that,” he said. “It was the first weekend in June.”
Perhaps knowing first-hand the good of the rodeo arena and the community around it, Sampson had a vision for the kind of rodeo that could not only support young Yakama members, but rodeo contestants throughout Indian Country. The vision became the Indian National Finals Rodeo in 1976, of which Sampson was a founding member.
“It had a huge impact on all of the young ropers and Indian rodeo people,” Bird said. “It gave us a finals every year to go to, which was prestigious. Every year, there’s been ropers—like Derrick Begay is an INFR Champion … Aaron Tsinigine, Dustin, Preston Williams, Erich Rogers. I don’t know that they necessarily got their start there, but they are all past INFR Champions.”
Today, Indian ProRodeo sanctions nearly 700 rodeos a year and, in 2019, competitors from nearly 75 tribes competed in the Finals, held in Las Vegas, Nevada—quite a successful journey from its Salt Lake City start.
“It wasn’t all prosperous right from the start,” Bird explained. “I know that Mel probably invested a lot of his own money just to keep it alive. Him and the other commissioners that started it—Dean Jackson, Pete Fredericks, Jay Harwood and Bob Arrington—they had the vision to have the Indian National Finals and they was the ones that laid all the groundwork for years to have the Indian National Finals to go to. It struggled some years, and some years it was good, but they were able to hold it together.”
In 2011, Sampson was inducted into the INFR’s first Hall of Fame class, along with the other founding commissioners. According to Bird, he was respected in rodeo, his tribe, and throughout Indian Country.
In addition to his contributions to rodeo, Sampson was also a lifetime member of the National Congress of American Indians, an elected member to the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, an Army veteran and a university board member. His accomplishments outside the rodeo arena, much like the vision for the Indian National Finals Rodeo, focused on creating a greater good for his community, including vastly improved health services, scholarship programs from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as natural resource restorations for his beloved fishing grounds.
He was also, according to his friends, a good man.
“He was one of the smartest men I knew,” Bird said. “You’ll never meet a nicer man than Mel Sampson. And a more knowledgeable man. He was a very good friend, and he knows a lot about things that go on in Indian Country. He was very, very highly respected in all of Indian Country, and especially in his tribe.”