Autumn Charges Strong captures Women’s Ultimate Warrior championship three consecutive times
Indicative of her name, Autumn Charges Strong, of Benteen, Montana, has captured the Women’s Ultimate Warrior championship three consecutive times; this year, she beat the men’s fastest competitor by three minutes. Charges Strong is driven to supply her daughter with a prime example of how strong women can be while simultaneously proving naysayers wrong.
Rory, Autumn’s daughter, was born in 2015. The youngster is her driving force for competing and winning. Along with minimal help from her parents and those holding her relay horses, Autumn pays for and trains for races on her own.
“I want her to be better, win it all, do good things. I want her to learn and remember me doing all these things so she can be motivated to do the same things,” Autumn said of Rory. “I was hearing things about being a mom and not being fast. That motivated me a lot.”
Ultimate Warrior during Crow Native Days, which is close to the anniversary of the Battle of Big Horn, requires men and women to begin their race at the grandstands at Crow Agency, run to the creek, where they canoe downstream for about a mile and three-quarters. They then run about six miles before landing back at the grandstands where they begin the horse relay. It isn’t like the traditional Indian Relay in the sense that this course is cross-country, though they still exchange horses. Competitors ride their horses two miles each and finish the race on the last horse.
“Just like Indian Relay, Ultimate Warrior came out of Crow country here,” Ultimate Warrior coordinator Thomas Ten Bear said. “With the way the course is, we almost close up the whole town.”
Crow Native Days originated as a drug-free event for youth on the Crow reservation and is still drug-free.
“Contestants have been drug-tested the day of the race,” Ten Bear said. “We try to keep that emphasis in there. We can have fun, and people who are in the race are drug-free and can have fun.”
Autumn’s race career began as a runner on a three-woman team for the Ultimate Warrior. When the event was first established, it was set up with one woman running, another canoeing, and another yet riding the horse relay.
In 2013, the first race Autumn ran—as an 18-year-old, the minimum age allowed to compete—she was able to compensate for a slow canoeing portion by coming in first in the running before handing the figurative baton onto the horse-racer.
“We got out of the boats second, a minute and a half behind the leader,” she said. “The run was six miles; when we got to the horses, we were first, and came in second final.”
Her second year in the Ultimate Challenge as a team wasn’t what she had hoped for, and she took a hiatus in 2015 to have Rory.
She came back strong in 2016 winning her first individual race and repeated the performance in 2017. The women’s course this year, for the first time, matched the men’s, meaning Autumn needed to find another horse, though the women competed Saturday and the men Sunday.
“I wasn’t sure if they were going to have it this year; they told us a week before,” she said. “Two of the horses are mine, one is borrowed. For the previous two years, the course was shortened over the men’s, but this year they switched it up and made it the exact same course as the men’s.”
Stormy Cat and Grand Bay are Autumn’s, and she borrowed a horse of her dad’s as well.
With a time of two hours and seven minutes, Autumn came in three minutes faster than the fastest man: Virgil McCormick, who is Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Lakota, and currently enrolled Crow. He got his start Indian Relaying—but that takes more commitment than Ultimate Warrior Challenges— and hasn’t competed in a relay for about a year and a half. He previously rode for Medicine Horse Relay and Red Bone Relay.
“It’s a lot more commitment to the horses, and I’ve been working through the summer,” he said. “Ultimate Warrior is one day, and I just trained throughout the months before. I just have to train three horses [as opposed to four required for Indian Relay], and make sure they’re used to going up and down hills at a good pace so it doesn’t hurt the horse.”
Aspects of Indian Relay are harder, he said, including having to exchange horse quicker.
“The dismount and exchange is really the art or challenge of the sport,” McCormick said. “Both sides of my family has grown up around horses; the horse part of it wasn’t the challenge, it was being in shape and preparing and making sure the horses were ready and it was safe for them to compete in the race.”
Crow Native Days, spanning June 21-25 features other events such as Indian Relay, powwow, arrow throwing, horse racing, horseshoes, rodeo, a parade, and honoring of veterans.
“It has been going on since 1999, and was officially made a holiday in 2002,” said Jared Stewart, the Crow Native Days and Crow Fair administrative officer, who was also instrumental in bringing Crow Native Days before the Crow legislative branch. “It has (more of) a homegrown kind of feel than big commercialized powwows. Crow Native Days is a little more low-key, though we do invite tourism and non-tribal and participants from other tribes.”
2018 Ultimate Warriors
1st Virgil McCormick
2nd Ezekiel Coyote Runs
3rd R. J. Amyotte
4th Allen Stewart
5th Jesse Old Crow
1st Autumn Charges Strong
2nd Brinna Melendez
3rd LaChrissa Horn