Howard Wanna was born on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota in 1906. Sent off to Indian boarding school in Wahpeton, he met and became fast friends with Martin Old Dog from Fort Berthold.
He found his way to Elbowoods and spent many years with the Old Dog family and at other ranches in the vicinity, doing ranch work in exchange for room and board. This entailed breaking of horses and ponies, a natural progression into the sport of rodeo. He also cared for Hereford cattle and cut hay.
Wanna (often misspelled as Warner) was a familiar figure at local rodeo events in Sanish, Yucca, Beulah, Minot and Killdeer, as well as Reservation rodeos at Elbowoods, Nishu, Independence and Shell Creek. Those who knew Wanna called him “a darn good cowboy”.
During the 1920s, Wanna participated in bronc riding, bareback racing, horse races and saddle-horse tug of war at Fort Berthold Indian Fairs. His skills were captured by photographers Frank Fiske and Leo Harris. In fact, the photo of him on Sky High at the Beulah Cowboys Reunion in 1928 was used on the advertising billboard.
Wanna personifies and symbolizes American Indian history of the early 20th Century. He was born during the bleakest period and his life reflects the astonishing changes and challenges faced by his people on the plains as they settled on their allotments and began cattle ranching, the buffalo and horse culture left behind.
He was among the first generation of Indian cowboys, and this is his contribution to the world of rodeo and ranching. He was participating in a time before formal rodeo associations were organized so he never held office. It was a time when all of the cowboys worked together to run a rodeo–they drove the horses to the rodeo grounds, took care of them during the rodeo and helped out in other ways, all volunteer work.
Wanna served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific Theater from 1942 to ‘45. While in Burma, he contracted cholera, which left him very weak. After an honorable discharge, he returned to South Dakota to recuperate.
Wanna and two of his relatives died in a house fire in 1949.