How basketball is empowering Native women on and off the court
November is Native American Heritage Month.
Being a fan of women's basketball means recognizing how immensely competitive women are on the basketball court, and knowing the sacredness of that competition. Athletics reigned in my small Oregon town, where I played basketball from third grade up until my high school's JV team. I have such strong recollections of that moment right after tip-off, when my mental focus sharpened and my body was overcome with an athletic incisiveness I could only summon in that time and space.
My family is really into basketball—just a few days ago, I got a photo text from my parents at an Oregon Ducks women's basketball game with the message, "Courtside!" They were pumped, and who wouldn't be? My alma mater's women's basketball team is going into the 2019 season ranked third in the nation, and they're fun as hell to watch.
I got ahold of Cenia Hayes, a shooting guard at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and we chatted about her growing career on the court. Cenia is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and previously played for Sequoyah High School, a Tribal school where she said the competition was "fierce."
"My alma mater has a winning tradition," Cenia told me. "These girls were amazing athletes. With hard work and determination through the preseason, I made the cut and I was a starter by opening game." Cenia was one of few Native women who moved on to play college ball after high school. In Indigenous communities, basketball is king (and queen), and even has a special name on some reservations: "rezball."
While outsiders often perceive Indian Country as a world weighted with staggering poverty, joblessness, and high youth suicide rates, Tribal communities are fostering youth athletic programs—almost as if to build a great warrior class.
Young Native people are indeed overcoming substantial adversity to bring pride to their Nations via basketball. Cenia knows this task well. When I asked about the importance of high school basketball in her Native community, she described to me the wide support of her people and those from other Tribal Nations:
Just talking to Cenia made me want to turn on a game. Her firm competitiveness is intimidating and her desire to achieve is gripping. It makes perfect sense to me that Native women would be unrelenting on the court. Indigenous women hold within us a centuries-old lineage of perseverance, survival, and fight. Modern exploitation and stereotypes of Native women are embarrassingly far off the mark.
"I feel as if [Natives] are underrated athletes," says Cenia about the mainstream perception of Native ball players. "We really do have some of the best there is out there in every sport." She continues, "Sports teaches us many skills that we use throughout our lifetime and in our careers. It teaches us to be good teammates and partners, leadership, communication skills, responsibility, and so much more. Without basketball, I wouldn't be who I am today."
I wanted to know how to support and amplify our young Native women athletes during this crucial time in their lives when they're showing us their most powerful selves. Brent Cahwee of the Pawnee Nation, Euchee Tribe, and Sac and Fox Nation is co-founder of the largest digital sports news platform in Indian Country, NDNSports.com. I asked him what needs to happen so that more opportunities open up for Native women in basketball.
"You see more and more of our Indigenous youth getting more opportunities to play college ball outside of their home communities with the growth of major Native high school tournaments," Cahwee states. "This gives them exposure to college coaches who don't get a chance to see them play."
With only 10% of the Native American and Alaskan population currently attaining undergraduate degrees, basketball provides Native ladies with eminence in the athletic world while opening much-needed doors to higher education. We have seen a total of four Native women ever play for the WNBA, and currently, there are zero on the court. But with more teams traveling and more tournaments providing exposure for young athletes, NCAA scouts are starting to turn their attention to Native talent. "We try to generate a lot of interest for our Native athletes," Brent says about the NDN Sports platform. "That's just as important these days for college recruitment. They really have to market themselves and we try to help as much as we can."
Cenia echoes that sentiment. She wants basketball fans to follow her and her team on social media and in sports news, and she wants fans to "just let us know they're behind us as we progress to a better season." To experience the excitement of watching these ladies' ferocity on the court—whether they are battling for a win, for the pride of their communities, or for a brighter future for themselves—I cordially invite you to become an active fan of Native women in basketball as their 2019 season gets underway.