CARSTAIRS — The second book in a children’s series that explores the diverse heritage of individuals involved in shaping Alberta’s ranching and rodeo community celebrates the legacy of a rodeo queen who co-founded the Calgary Stampede.
Red Barn Books Inc. is a Carstairs-area publisher that in the short time since getting established in 2019 has already racked up numerous awards. It recently announced the impending release of Howdy, I’m Flores LaDue, set to launch in tandem with International Women’s Day.
Written for ages 7-10, the 44-page illustrated story shines a spotlight on the life of Canada’s little-known rodeo queen, Flores LaDue (1883-1951). Despite a short stature at less than five-feet tall, LaDue forged a reputation as a world champion trick roper and co-founder of the Stampede.
Ayesha Clough — a former journalist who founded Red Barn Books and authored the story about Flores that features illustrations by Hugh Rookwood and Indigenous art by Keegan Starlight — was inspired not only by LaDue’s impressive talent, but especially her unwavering tenacity.
“I don’t think anyone can even come close to her, as far as legacy or achievements and contributions to Alberta,” said Clough when asked whether any other historical female figures from Alberta’s early Western heritage days had been considered for the next book in the child-friendly biographical series featuring the province’s pioneers.
“As far as a rodeo queen goes, I don’t think anybody could even touch her. She’s so amazing. Not only as an athlete — she won these three world titles, which no other cowgirl had ever done in trick roping — but she also co-founded the Calgary Stampede. So, she’s not just an athlete, but she’s also this builder.”
Drawing from her past experience as a journalist, Clough conducted research by digging through a family tree on ancestry.ca as well as diving into archives from the Museum of the Highwood, whose curator Irene Kerr loves LaDue’s story and was keen to help.
- RELATED: Carstairs area's Red Barn Books nabs publishing award
- RELATED: Carstairs publisher’s illustrated book picks up two awards
“For too long, Flores has remained in the shadow of her famous husband Guy Weadick,” said Clough.
Said to have been able to rope five galloping horses in one throw, LaDue was the only cowgirl to claim three world titles in trick roping.
“You just have to imagine the strength of this woman, and the amount of her determination to practise so much to get so good at what she does,” said Clough. “So small, and yet so mighty.”
That made illustrating her story a fun experience for Rookwood, said Clough.
“He loved the fact that she’s roping, she’s always in motion, she’s so dynamic. He’s put so much energy and power into the book,” she said, expressing enthusiasm for the finished product.
“I’m super excited. It looks so beautiful. It’s so full of this rodeo queen magic. I’m getting a really great reception to it already — I kind of feel like this book’s got a bit of momentum already going for it.”
Also featuring a special collaborative contribution from Starlight, Clough said she wanted Howdy, I’m Flores LaDue to feature genuine First Nations representation on pages that include Indigenous people.
“There’s a parade spread and a farewell party where Flores is being honoured by all these different groups in the High River area,” she said. “So, wherever there was an Indigenous character that shows up in the book, we got Keegan Starlight to illustrate those parts just to ensure authentic representation.”
There is a tendency for people to think of the old days of the wild west of cowboys and Indians in a “very antagonistic way,” she said.
“But here in Alberta, they have such a cool history of collaboration. Right from that very first Calgary Stampede in 1912, Flores insisted on including the Treaty 7 members in the parade, in the rodeo, in all aspects of the Stampede,” she said. “And that tradition has actually carried down to this day.”
Indigenous perspective provides authenticity
For his part, Starlight — whose great-grandfather rode in the 1912 parade and whose family remains involved in the Stampede to this day — gratefully welcomed with open arms the opportunity to work on the project.
“I thought it was pretty cool to be able to be represented in a proper way. Not just being mentioned in the book, but also having a hand in it,” he said.
“It’s such a great opportunity to bring me in. They could have picked anybody. I just feel so grateful for that.”
Even if his artistic contribution is only featured on a few pages, the full-time freelance artist said it lends the story more authenticity.
“I’ve had other children’s books published in my own artwork through the Calgary Public Library,” said Starlight.
“But to see my own people — my family — being represented through that, it was surreal,” he said when asked how flipping through the finished book’s pages felt.
Motivated by his family who he lives with on Tsuut’ina Nation, Starlight said his wife and children “definitely are my number 1 inspiration behind what I do.”
Once working construction, he had grown accustomed to hard labour, but had yearned to pursue a path in the arts since his days in grade school.
“Being an artist is always kind of seen as the lower tier of what you’re supposed to be doing in life,” he said. “But that was always my dream.”
However, that dream only started to become a reality when his wife started encouraging him to pursue his true passion.
“She got me to go to art college,” he said, adding he studied at the former Alberta College of Art and Design that has since become Alberta University of the Arts, and hasn’t looked back since.
“I am where I’m supposed to be.”
Asked his thoughts on the importance of including authentic representation of First Nations culture in story-telling, Starlight said enabling and empowering Indigenous voices to speak about their own history without putting words in their mouths and taking anything out of context, is crucial.
“I think it’s extremely important to have the information come from the actual source,” he said, adding people often prefer to gloss over the “nitty gritty or the bad stuff” in favour of focusing only on positive aspects.
“But in terms of children’s books, things are starting to turn around now, where they’re telling the story. It’s more captivating and it’s more informative than sugar coating everything.”
The past 150 years have been relatively short in the grand scheme of civilization’s history, but it has left indelible scars for the Indigenous people who endured colonization and cultural genocide, he said.
“I think for the most part, the culture was almost erased, the language was almost erased. But I think we’re finding our voice again,” he said. “We’re coming into ourselves through the arts and crafts. But also, we’re finding ourselves through other political means, we’re putting our foot in the door and we’re not letting it close on us like every single time it does.”
Howdy, I’m John Ware, the biographical series’ first book which recounts the tale of a freed slave who early last century became a legend within Alberta’s ranching community, won two awards last year.
Although surmounting the fundraising hurdle is always challenging, with each book costing about $20,000 from the conceptual stage to the published work of 4,000 to 5,000 copies, Clough is confident about eventually being able to begin work on the third book in the Howdy series, this time featuring Indo-Canadian Sikh Harnam Singh Hari, who rose from humble roots to found one of the biggest ranching families in southern Alberta.
“I’ve got so many that I would love to do,” she said, also expressing a desire to also tell the tale of Tom Three Persons, an Indigenous rancher and rodeo cowboy from Kainai Nation known for winning the saddle bronc competition at the inaugural Calgary Stampede.
Funding from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts made possible the second book about LaDue, said Clough.