Native American communities are missing sports during pandemic pause

Crisis highlights Indian Country collaboration, experts tell ASU panel


The suspension of sports has taken away a happy part of Native American culture as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to several experts on an Arizona State University panel on Friday.

But the public health crisis also has shown the resilience of Native American people, the panelists said during the “COVID-19 and Native American Sport” Zoom discussion sponsored by the Global Sport Institute at ASU.

“If anyone knows Native Americans, we love our sports, and having to pause sports activity now is difficult,” said Patty Talahongva, the moderator and executive producer at Indian Country Today, the event’s co-sponsor. She is a member of the Hopi tribe and an alumna of ASU.

“Togetherness is another part of Indian culture, that idea of caring for one another and our clanships,” she said.

“When we talk about social distancing, it goes against the fabric of our culture.”

Young Native American basketball players are losing the opportunity to pursue scholarships because the Native American Basketball Invitational tournament, held in Phoenix every summer, is canceled, the panelists said.

Natalie Welch, who is Cherokee, is an assistant professor at Linfield College and formerly participated in Nike's N7 initiative.

“Hundreds of teams come to Arizona to play ‘rez ball’ and there’s scholarship money attached to that,” she said.

“There’s so much beyond just the games being played. It’s also the kinship and connecting with natives from Alaska to the Florida Seminoles. It’s an eye-opener for a lot of native youth.”

Brent Cahwee, a Pawnee/Euchee and co-founder of the news site NDNSports, said the NABI tournament is one of the top 10 events in Indian Country.

“One of the things I like is the parade of teams, with hundreds of teams holding their tribal flags,” he said.

“The kids save up their money to travel and it might be their only exposure to playing in front of a college coach.”

The tournament also includes educational seminars.

“These have grown exponentially and are mandatory events for the players. Now the kids will be missing out on how to apply for scholarships and how to apply for financial aid,” he said.

The panelists agreed that even though some states are easing stay-at-home orders, sports is not ready to resume.

“When you watch them play rez basketball, they’re on top of each other,” Talahongva said.

“Any sport has the potential for impact. Softball is huge on my reservation in the summertime.”

Cahwee said that the public health concerns go far beyond the players. He was covering the Big-12 tournament in March when the decision was made to cancel.

“What a lot of people don’t see in college and professional sports is that, behind the scenes, it takes a small army to run that tournament, with concessions, security, ushers,” he said.

“The NBA commissioner brought up the fact that a lot of head coaches fall into the high-risk category. There’s a lot to making sure the environment is safe to compete.”

Jordan Marie Daniel, a member of the Sioux tribe, is a marathon runner who uses her sport to raise awareness about missing and murdered indigenous women.

“All of my races have been canceled for this entire year,” she said. “But until there’s a vaccine I don’t see it feeling safe at all.”

Daniel, who lives in Los Angeles, rented a treadmill because she sees too many people not following social-distancing guidelines outside.

“Even though things look weird in our sports world, there are still ways to stay fit and there’s probably even more opportunity to raise awareness and keep talking about these issues,” she said.

“On May 5, I ran from sunrise to sunset in prayer. We as indigenous people are struggling for visibility all the time, and I see that changing as we are showing up and speaking out.”

The panelists said they’ve seen their tribes stepping up to help their communities and collaborate with each other, and they praised the Oglala Sioux Tribe, which closed the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to visitors despite the demands of the South Dakota governor to reopen.

One of the hardest hit communities is the Navajo nation, which has seen more than 3,600 cases and 127 deaths.

Michelle Tom, who is Navajo, is a physician at the Winslow Indian Health Care Center and the Little Colorado Medical Center, both in Winslow, Arizona, dealing on the front lines of the crisis.

Tom also was captain of the Sun Devil women's basketball team when she was at ASU. She said the communication skills she learned on the team have been important in working with patients.

“When you’re on a team, it’s knowing your role. You’re not going to succeed by yourself,” she said.

“If I go to an outpatient clinic, I’m the only doctor there but the support staff is amazing. I look to security to get patients in and out safely. The nurses and medical assistants are my eyes and ears.”

Tom sees COVID-19 patients every day, but is alarmed by the spread of the virus. She treated a very sick man who was dropped off by his wife and son, who then left.

“I was frantic. They were on their way to Walmart,” she said. “I tested the son and wife. They had no symptoms but they tested positive.”

But she’s seen the silver lining as well.

“You can see the beauty,” Tom said. “I’ve had so many emails. ‘How can I help?’ It’s not just Navajos. It’s all Indian Country.”

Top image by Pixabay

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