Native Americans in Pro Sports
I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Rapid City, South Dakota. Across from me, my girlfriend is studying Lakota language flash cards in preparation for her upcoming semester at Oglala Lakota College. We should be at a friend’s house watching the Denver Broncos play the New England Patriots in the American Football Conference Championship. But, as you know, time is subject to change. And, for professional sports, times are definitely changing.
The conversation about Native Americans in sports is slowly turning away from the use of Indian mascots and also focusing less on past accomplishments. A new generation of indigenous athletes from all across Turtle Island is bringing attention back to Native Americans on the court, on the field, and on the ice. Still, we can’t have a conversation about Native Americans in sports without first mentioning the legends:
- “The Greatest Athlete,” Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox), not only won two gold medals during the 1912 Olympics but played professional football, baseball, and basketball.
- In 1964, Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota) became the second Native American to win Olympic gold, as well as the only American to win the gold medal for the 10,000 meter run.
- During a 16-year career in Major League Baseball, Charles Albert “Chief” Bender (Chippewa) developed the slider pitch, pitched a no-hitter, and pitched in five World Series.
- Ellison “Tarzan” Brown (Narragansett) won the Boston Marathon in 1936 and 1939, while also competing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
- NFL Hall of Famer “Injun Joe” Kapp quarterbacked with the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears, as well as the British Columbia Lions (CFL). He is the only athlete ever to have played in the Super Bowl (1970), Grey Cup (1963), and Rose Bowl (1959).
Today, the legacy continues. 2013 was one of the biggest years yet for professional and collegiate Native American athletes. In 2013, Major League Baseball and the National Football League saw five Native Americans among its best teams:
- NFL quarterback Sam Bradford (Cherokee) played for the St. Louis Rams (out much of the season with a torn ACL)
- Kyle Lohse (Nomlaki) pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers
- Joba Chamberlain (Winnebago) pitched for the New York Yankees
- Jacoby Ellsbury (Navajo, now with the Yankees) and Shane Victorino (Native Hawaiian) played for the Boston Red Sox
Did I mention that Ellsbury, Victorino, and Lohse each have at least one World Series ring? And that, in 2013, Ellsbury and Victorino both earned their second World Series Championship with the Red Sox? Jacoby Ellsbury, is known to us as a supporter of the Navajo Relief Fund (NRF), a program of National Relief Charities. In 2010, he launched a charity wine named ZinfaldEllsbury and donated a portion of the proceeds to NRF and two other charities. At the press conference we attended, Jacoby talked about his grandmother weaving rugs and shearing sheep in 120 degrees with no air conditioning. He appreciates the hardworking lifestyle but has concerns and Jacoby Ellsbury realizes that children of the reservation can draw hope from seeing someone of Navajo descent playing in the majors — hope that also carries over into school.
Sisters, Jude and Shoni Schimmel (Umatilla), were launched into the national spotlight as they helped carry the Louisville Cardinals from the number five seed to the title game of the 2013 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. Despite their loss to the UConn Huskies in the championship game, the Schimmel sisters finished the 2013 NCAA Women’s Season as the pride of Native Americans everywhere.
Finally, four-time PGA Tour Winner, Notah Begay III (Navajo), continues to fight Type 2 diabetes in Indian country with the Notah Begay III Foundation. Partnering with Nike’s N7, Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; Begay is taking a holistic approach to reducing the rates of diabetes among Native Americans through sports, research, and community-based programs.
Soon our attention will turn toward the upcoming Super Bowl XLVIII. While Sam Bradford and the Rams didn’t make it to this year’s Super Bowl, and the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks currently have no Native athletes on their rosters, I remain comforted by this thought: If 2013 proved anything about Native American athletes, it is that their legacy isn’t static but changing with the times, the players, and the nations they represent.