From the arena to the courtroom, ’the outlaw Josey Wales’ leaves her mark
Josey Johnson has just closed one chapter of her life, and is about to begin a new one.
The Cheyenne River Sioux tribe member graduated from the University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law on May 8, 2021. She will take the bar exam in late July, and be employed by Pebbles Kidder Law Firm in Rapid City.
But there’s more to Josey than being an attorney.
The 28-year-old is a cowgirl and a world champion breakaway roper, the step-daughter of the Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR) world champion tie-down roper Mark Cuny and the daughter of the late CL Johnson, a movie stunt man and the 1985 INFR world champion bull rider.
Born in 1992 to Leslie Johnson Cuny and CL, she was the apple of her dad’s eye. While her mom was at work, she tagged along with her dad, a rancher, cowboy, and a stunt man.
She helped him ranch and rode horses with him, and on the first day of kindergarten, he followed the bus to school. He’d have driven her to school every day, but her mother insisted that Josey had to learn to ride the bus. He’d come to school a half-hour early, to pick up his little girl, because he missed her.
When she was six years old, CL was killed in a car crash and her hero was gone. “We were close,” she said. “I was my parents’ only child, and I spent so much time with him.”
By age twelve, she was competing in the barrel racing at Little Britches Rodeos, high school and Indian rodeos, qualifying for the S.D. High School Finals Rodeo in the barrels and her senior year, in the barrels and the pole bending.
Josey graduated from Red Cloud Indian High School in Pine Ridge in 2010 and from Oglala Lakota College in 2017 with a bachelor’s in business administration.
When Josey was in high school, her mother met Mark Cuny, a calf roper and Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge.
Josey took an interest in roping, so Mark taught her how to breakaway. While she learned, she trained her horse in the breakaway, under Mark’s tutelage. Mark married Leslie in 2010; by 2013, Josey qualified for her first INFR, and the next year, won the INFR world title.
She enrolled at the Knudson School of Law in 2018 and graduated in May. Last year, she interned with Peebles Kidder in Rapid City, an Indian law firm that primarily represents tribes and tribal entities. She was on the team that won a federal trial in 2020 against the state of South Dakota, representing the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe.
Her nickname, Josey Wales, as in the western movie, is an acknowledgement of her dad CL’s movie stunt work.
CL was known for his charisma, uncanny talent with horses, and adventurous personality.
Not only was he a stunt man, but he trained his own stunt horses, with one of his specialties being training falling horses. He taught them to lay down on cue, and after he’d earned their trust, he taught them to do it on a run. “My dad would set up a big pile of straw bales, and that’s what he would fall on, when he taught them to run and fall,” she said.
“He liked to do that when I had birthday parties, to show everybody his stunts.”
He worked several dozen westerns, including Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, and others.
“He was really good with horses and had a way with them,” Josey said. “He was able to train them to do pretty much anything he wanted them to do.”
CL didn’t work as a stuntman in the Clint Eastwood move Josey Wales, but she loves the movie, especially the scene towards the end where the horse falls into the ravine. “Anytime I see stunts in a movie like that, I really like it because that’s what my dad did. That’s one of my favorite scenes.”
Those stunt horses were the ones Josey learned to ride on.
She loves CL, but her step-dad Mark has been a wonderful dad to her, too. “He’s been the best father figure you could ask for, for someone to step in (after her dad’s death). He’s really important in my life. He’s taught me how to rope, he takes care of my horses while I’m at school. He makes sure I’m OK and he treats me like his own.”
Right now, she is working remotely as a law clerk, as she studies for the bar exam in Vermillion, S.D., and after she passes, she will work fulltime for Peebles Kidder.
Her mother thought she might be an English teacher, because she’s an excellent writer, but she chose to be a lawyer instead.
“There are a lot of issues that face tribes and tribal entities, involving sovereign rights as a nation,” Josey said. “I wanted to be part of the solution in preserving the sovereign rights of tribal nations, not just for my tribe but all tribes.”
She’s engaged to Jacey Mesteth, who graduated from USD the same day Josey did, with a master’s degree in kinesiology and sports management. No wedding day has been set yet. “We need to get through this part of our lives first,” Josey said.
But till then, there is studying to be done.
She hasn’t roped or ridden much since starting law school three years ago, but that’s about to change.
There’s a big breakaway roping at the Central States Fair in Rapid City, a few weeks after the bar exam is completed, and her horses will be waiting.
“I hope to be there,” she said.
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