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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 4 , 2002 - Issue 60


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Family of Winners

by Ian O'Connor

The Red Earth board of directors has named Oklahoma basketball coach Kelvin Sampson its Ambassador of the Year.

The award was founded in 1991 to promote pride in American Indian heritage and to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions in presenting a positive image of Native Americans.

The board said it chose Sampson, a Lumbee Indian, because he is an exceptional role model for all young people, showing what can be accomplished with perseverance and dedication.

Sampson will receive the 2002 Red Earth Ambassador of the Year award in a June 7 ceremony during the Red Earth Festival at the Cox Business Services Convention Center.

Like Father

Ned Sampson feared for his life. Not on the 1958 night he confronted the Ku Klux Klan in a North Carolina field, but on the night last week doctors told him a blood clot was boxing out his brain from left to right.

"Any time they start drilling holes in your head, it's scary," Sampson said.

He figured he'd survive and advance anyway. He's Lumbee Indian, after all, a member of a tribe of 50,000 the U.S. government refuses to recognize.

"It's never been easy for my people," Sampson said Thursday from Atlanta. "But we always find a way."

The hard way. The most unforgiving road to the Final Four, a path taken by four men of color before Ned's son, Kelvin, and Indiana's Mike Davis booked a semifinal without a white head coach.

Davis is the first Hoosiers coach any right-minded fan could cheer since Gene Hackman. On a day Arkansas hired a black successor to a black icon, on a day Mo Cheeks and Byron Scott jockey for NBA coach of the year votes, Davis represents another testament to basketball's encouraging move toward African-American opportunity.

There's been no shift in favor of the Native-American, forever the last man on his homeland's bench.

"There were some great Native-American coaches in my day," said Ned Sampson, 72, a high school coach for 30 years, "but we'd never get the best jobs. I thought Kelvin would end up being a high school coach in North Carolina. The first time he told me he wanted to be a college coach I just said, 'That's fine.' "

The old man didn't want to deflate the kid's dream, but all-American ignorance inflicts long-term pain. Their world was one of separate schools, theaters and bathrooms for whites, blacks and Indians. Six years after he began coaching, Ned joined hundreds of Lumbees in a raid on a Klan meeting, chasing the hooded cowards before any cross was burned.

"And they haven't been back since," Ned said. "You can't let people like that impose their will on you."

Ned imposed his good will on Kelvin. Father rode the son harder than any Pembroke High player for fear that parents might suspect bias in his huddle.

"I knew Kelvin could take it," he said.

Kelvin could take Oklahoma to the Final Four at a time when a college intramural team calls itself the Fighting Whites in response to schools embracing mascots offensive to Indians and Congress withholds federal recognition to his tribe, one that has sought such recognition for 114 years.

The Lumbee is among the nation's largest tribes and, some believe, the yield of an amalgam of Indians and the Lost Colony of Sir Walter Raleigh, 117 settlers who vanished in the late 1500s. "If white folks weren't around keeping records, white folks say, 'We don't know who you are,' " said Arlinda Locklear, a Lumbee attorney and first Native-American woman to win a Supreme Court case.

"Our tribe would be eligible for so many benefits if federally recognized that even some other tribes have opposed us. Indians aren't high on the totem pole to begin with; being treated as a second-class Indian means you can't get lower. I hope I live long enough to see recognition."

Ned Sampson was quick to second that thought. He was stepping off the Oklahoma bus in San Jose when team trainers saw him stumbling into a chain-link fence. Sampson told them he'd been having headaches aspirin couldn't beat. Before the old man knew it, he was out of surgery and watching Oklahoma beat Missouri on TV, watching as Kelvin and his victorious team marched through his hospital room door. "No tears," Ned said. "We might've hugged once or twice."

Before the father could fly to the Final Four, doctors slid tubes into the holes in his skull and drained post-op fluid. Ned said from his Atlanta hotel room he wasn't sure he'd be strong enough to attend the Indiana game — "I'm day-to-day" — but was more hopeful about the possibilities Monday night.

It would be the end of a long, unforgiving road, even if Oklahoma's coach swears he feels guilt over never having been a high school coach.

"My son shouldn't worry about paying dues," Ned Sampson said. "I've paid enough for the both of us."

Kelvin Sampson
Just completing his eighth year as Oklahoma’s head coach, Kelvin Sampson has the Sooners positioned as one of the nation’s top college basketball programs. Sampson has guided OU to an average of 25.6 wins over the last five seasons and 28.0 victories over the past three years. He has directed the Sooners to eight consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, including a Sweet 16 showing in 1999 and a Final Four appearance in 2002.


Red Earth, America's Greatest Native American Cultural Festival, will begin on Friday, June 7th and for three extraordinary days, welcome the descendents of over 100 American Indian tribes as they gather in Downtown Oklahoma City at the Myriad Convention Center to share the richness and diversity of their heritage with visitors from all over the world.

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