Red Sweat and Guts: Our athletes love to play

Feb 15th, 2009 | By | Category: 20-3: Tribal Athletes Fight for Their Place, Editor's Essay
By Tina Deschenie

DINE COLLEGE BULL RIDERThis issue tells the stories of Native students who play hard. The passion of these tribal college and university (TCU) athletes became all the more evident to me as I read numerous stories about them in other publications. Men and women basketball players from one school told a reporter that they might not even attend college if they couldn’t also play ball on the side. They seem to believe that they must play to truly feel alive.

Many of their coaches work fulltime positions but voluntarily coach after work to keep teams going. Significantly, many of these same coaches were active players themselves at one time. While only a few TCUs have sports facilities or sufficient funding, the athletes have that “just do it” attitude.  They simply want to play.

Although this is TCJ’s first sports issue, it has always been exciting to watch Native people participate in athletics or other activities that require physical prowess, such as traditional or ceremonial dancing. Some of our dances can go on for days, of course, and certain powwow events, such as fancy dancing, involve challenging, aerobics-like moves. Anyone who works in schools with Native students is bound to get caught up in the usual competitions – football, volleyball, basketball, wrestling, cross country, track and field, baseball, or softball.

Sports action at reservation high schools is hardcore, especially when state titles are up for grabs. When I worked in Native high schools, I became somewhat addicted. There were times when we drove hundreds of miles to watch particular students who had graduated and gone on to play at the college level.

At the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Basketball Tournament, there’s certainly plenty to cheer about! In this issue, we hear about the Salish Kootenai College Bison, the Little Big Horn Rams, and the Blackfeet Community College Pikuni. There are many more teams out there among the TCUs. Some of them feature former reservation high school stars that draw audiences from back home.

During the AIHEC Basketball Tournament, many of the college presidents can be spotted in the crowded bleachers. You’re also likely to see David Gipp, president at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC), taking pictures from the sidelines.

Sometimes players and administrators yearn for a division where willing teams can just play, without worrying about AIHEC’s athletic eligibility standards for college enrollment and academic standing. The AIHEC Athletic Commission, established in 2003, oversees AIHEC-sponsored athletic events, sets standards, and resolves conflicts.

In this issue, we are also introduced to the Lady Indians who play volleyball for Haskell. Their coach was captain of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Lady Rams’ volleyball team in 2006. And we meet rodeo teams, an archery team, and the national champion Diné College Warriors. The Warrior men’s cross country teams have consistently won national titles for a few years now, and this year the women also took the championship. Congratulations to all the players and their coaches, who put their heart and spirit into every contest.

As an added treat, we get to read the wisdom of Cynthia Lindquist Mala, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College, in “Voices.” Not only does she practice a healthy lifestyle, but she always looks spectacular dancing in the AIHEC powwow arena. You can tell her inclination is just to dance on and on.

In fact, I’ve seen several of the TCU presidents dance at powwows, including Carole Falcon-Chandler of Fort Belknap College, Leah Carpenter of Leech Lake Tribal College, and Marlin Spoonhunter of Wind River Tribal College. Although I haven’t seen them play, I’ve heard a few presidents talk about playing basketball in their younger days.

In “Talking Circle,” Virginia Allery, elementary education department chair at Turtle Mountain Community College, shares a story about student teachers who undertook an inspiring cultural immersion trip over the summer as part of a class. Jessie McDonald is our profiled student this issue. A dynamic AIHEC Student Congress vice president and a multi-tasking mom, she’s quite an engaging Indian woman.

The rodeo team stories remind me of Phil Baird, vice president at UTTC, who often refers to himself as a “busted-up bronc rider” at AIHEC meetings. Baird, a former rodeo rider, also helped found the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Since I grew up in and around it, I have a special appreciation for rodeo, too. I even tried to be a barrel racer myself for a short time, long ago. Baird’s remarks remind me of my father who competed in several events: bareback riding, roping, and steer wrestling. When my father passed on several years ago, I inherited his old bareback rigging. My brother kept his horses, and so I still get to ride whenever I visit.

My son got plenty of rodeo practice early on, but his ambitions were cut short when we moved to the city so I could pursue my education. He and his sisters went on to participate in other school sports. And now that they have graduated from high school, I get to cheer on my grandson who plays basketball at our local Boys and Girls Club.

While being a cheerleader on the sideline can be both exciting and active, we all need to heed Cynthia Lindquist Mala’s wisdom: dance, exercise, and eat healthy. Of course, I mean this for us spectators, not the awesome TCU athletes who burn up the courts, the arenas, the courses, and the playing fields. They’re already on top of their game. Go TCUs!

Tina Deschenie (Diné/Hopi) has been editor of Tribal College Journal since 2006.

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