Recognizing The Accomplishments of Native American Athletes on National Student Athlete Day
National Student Athlete Day, created by the National Consortium for Academics and Sports (NCAS), is recognized by National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) colleges and universities on April 6. The day acknowledges student-athletes who excel in the classroom and on the playing fields, all while giving back to their communities through volunteerism and service projects.
For us, National Student Athlete Day reminds us of the importance of sports in Indian Country and the Native American athletes and professional teams who support Native causes.
Sports can serve as a healthy way for Native American youth who live in remote reservation communities to cope with the everyday stresses and historical trauma imposed on our tribal communities. Native American children have the highest dropout rates of any ethnic group in the United States, with 29 to 36 percent of all Native students dropping out of school mostly from grades 7 to 12, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Participating in sports, however, gives Native youth another way to succeed and excel.
In the Northern Plains, basketball — commonly known as “Rezball” — is not only the most popular sport but a way of life. Competitions such as the Lakota Nation Invitational (LNI) and the Dakota Oyate Challenge bring Lakota high school boys’ and girls’ basketball teams together and attract college scouts. These tournaments showcase players who otherwise may not have the opportunity to be seen, given the remote locations of their reservation communities.
Quite a few Native Americans have excelled as professional athletes and role models for youth across Indian Country, including:
- Olympian medalists Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox), Billy Mills (Sioux), Rickie Fowler (Navajo) and Ashton Locklear (Lumbee)
- NBA players Kyrie Irving (Standing Rock Sioux) with the Boston Celtics, Cherokee Parks (Cherokee) with the Dallas Mavericks, and Ron Baker (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) with the New York Nicks
- NFL players Sam Bradford (Cherokee Nation) with the Minnesota Vikings, James Winchester (Choctaw Nation) with the Kansas City Chiefs, Bryce Petty (Chickasaw Nation) with the New York Jets, and Eli Ankou (Ojibwe) with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Though some sports teams have perpetuated negative stereotypes through insensitive team names, logos and mascots, other franchises have supported championing Native American causes. Last year, Jacksonville Jaguar Eli Ankou highlighted the social issues facing Native communities by selecting PWNA as his charity of choice in the NFL “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign. The Dallas Mavericks invited PWNA to give a presentation on Native American history and culture and partnered on a ticket sales fundraiser for a fall 2019 game.
National Student Athlete Day reminds us that sports are more than an extracurricular activity. They’ve inspired generations of youth, and especially Native youth to succeed beyond the field and bring hope and confidence in coping with the hardships of life on reservations.