An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
September 21, 2002 - Issue 70
Breaking the Cycle
by Stu Whitney Argus Leader
photo credit: Mike Chavez (Browning, MT) moves upcourt against Fairfield's Mike Schmitt during high school basketball action - Great Falls Tribune photo by Mike Sterkel
leading Cheyenne-Eagle Butte High School to consecutive Class B state
basketball tournaments in the early 1970s, Jesse Mendoza caught the eye
of talent-hungry college coaches.
But most didn't make the trip to visit Mendoza's home on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, where nearly 70 percent of Lakota residents live in poverty near the Missouri River in north-central South Dakota.
One exception was Huron University coach Bob Swanhorst, who made the three-hour drive and later signed his all-state recruit to a scholarship.
"He was the only coach who came to our door," recalls Mendoza, who is now Cheyenne-Eagle Butte's boys basketball coach and junior high principal.
"He sat down and had coffee with my parents, which showed respect. When somebody takes the time to visit, it makes you want to be part of their program. As soon as he left, my parents looked at me and said, ÔYou're going to Huron.' "
The recruitment of Mendoza, who helped Swanhorst's squad reach the 1974 NAIA national tournament, enriched Huron's reputation as an institution willing to give minority student-athletes a chance to succeed.
When it was purchased last year by Si Tanka College - affiliated with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe - Huron became one of 31 tribal schools in the nation that offer more accessible education opportunities for Native American students. There are four tribal colleges in South Dakota.
And in a state with a Native American population of more than 8 percent, many consider Huron's new tribal affiliation a positive step.
"We're the melting pot of South Dakota," says women's basketball coach Laura Pollard, pointing also to the school's African-American enrollment. "This place could serve as a model for people not only in this state, but also across the country."
While most tribal colleges don't sponsor athletics, larger programs such as Huron and Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., have become popular choices for high school athletes from South Dakota reservations.
At a time when less than 1 percent of NCAA scholarship athletes are Native American, tribal schools allow students to extend their sports careers while keeping in touch with their culture.
"There are a lot of kids who dream big and who are state champions, but they're not NCAA Division I material," says Mo Smith of the Native American Sports Council. "Some have a distorted view of what it really takes to be recruited at that level, so this offers an alternative."
Of the 500 students enrolled at the Huron campus this fall, 80 are Native American. Of the school's 300 athletes, 34 are Native American - a rate of more than 11 percent.
This year's men's basketball team will have a total of 10 Native Americans -Êincluding seven freshmen -Êon the varsity and junior varsity squads. Pollard's women's basketball team features seven Indian players. There also are Native American athletes participating in football, softball, wrestling, track and the recently added sport of rodeo.
"They're coming from all over," says freshman basketball player Autumn Fallis, a former Crow Creek standout. "And there are supposed to be more on the way."
Si Tanka Huron officials deny that tribal leaders put a quota system in place to spark this influx of Indian athletes. But coaches have been encouraged to recruit on the reservations, just like Swanhorst did more than 30 years ago.
"We're certainly aware of the Native American athlete, and we've encouraged our coaches to pay more attention there," says Brad Smith, Huron's vice president of operations. "As a result, there are more athletes looking at us. We're finding strength in our diversity, because we don't like to draw a line between races. We'd like them to blend."
Still a struggle
Just as troubling was a highly publicized AIDS scare that erupted last April, when Nikko Briteramos, a freshman basketball player from Chicago, was charged with having sex without telling his girlfriend he has HIV.
He became the first person convicted in South Dakota of intentionally exposing another to the virus. The woman has so far tested negative.
"There's a black cloud hanging over Huron right now," says Dorothy Kiyukan, a counselor and college-placement specialist at Marty Indian School on the Yankton Sioux Reservation.
One of her former students, basketball standout Red Sky Zephier, accepted a scholarship to play at Huron this season.
"We're waiting to see how they do with Red Sky," says Kiyukan. "It's not just the financial picture people are worried about. They're scared about the AIDS issue and what can happen there."
To Huron athletic director Garney Henley, such negativity stems from ignorance of the issue or recruiting rumors spread by rival colleges.
"I'm sure there are always people who aren't educated on all the details," he says. "Not just students, but other universities who use those things against us when they talk to kids we're recruiting. I find that sort of conduct completely unprofessional."
Huron supporters would rather discuss the school's legacy of recruiting more minority athletes than other South Dakota universities.
"They were willing to let you be very diverse on campus, which meant you were able to bring in the black athlete," says Fred Paulsen, who coached Huron's men's basketball team from 1984-90 and 1993-97. "But I always told people that the kids we brought in had to be a good fit for the college and the town."
The school's sensitivity toward Native Americans has sometimes been tested, as when it dropped its controversial Scalpers nickname in the 1970s in favor of the Tribe. In 1997, the current Screaming Eagles nickname was adopted.
When the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe stepped in last year, it merged Si Tanka with Huron and raised its stature above South Dakota's other tribal schools -ÊSisseton-Wahpeton Community College, Oglala Lakota College and Sinte Gleska University.
But some non-Native personnel at Huron felt threatened.
"People tend to worry because they want things the way used to be," says Pollard, in her fourth season as the school's women's basketball coach. "Right now, being Caucasian means you're the minority around here, and most of us haven't been in that situation."
Making it better
"For many students, this kind of environment is supportive and familiar - and they thrive," says Dr. Karen Swisher, a Northern State University graduate who serves as president of Haskell Indian Nations University.
"This institution was established back in 1884 to help Native Americans assimilate into white culture, but it's evolved into what we believe in now, which is self-determination."
Along with Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, N.M., Haskell is an inter-tribal college operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is virtually free to enrolled members of federally recognized tribes.
Since tribal schools operate with federal and private funding (through groups such as the American Indian College Fund), Haskell's 856 students pay just $105 a semester for tuition and room and board.
"These schools are the pinnacle of where most Native American student-athletes got started," says SIPI cross country coach Mike Daney, who began his collegiate running career at Haskell.
"I used Haskell as a springboard, because I had low scores and skills going into college. Once I realized that simply getting by wasn't good enough, I picked it up. My grade-point average was 1.3 coming out of high school, but by the second semester in college, I was on the dean's list."
Haskell's sports teams moved from junior college to four-year NAIA status in 2000 and now compete in the Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference with schools such as Peru State and College of the Ozarks.
Women's basketball player Melissa Mossett, a former prep standout from North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation, decided to attend Haskell after an injury kept other recruiters from calling.
"All through high school, I had to play basketball at a white school, and I wanted to play with other Native Americans," says Mossett, a 5-foot-11 junior, majoring in American Indian studies.
"That was important for me, because in high school, I wasn't able to be around people who were like me. I couldn't discuss important things such as culture, language and who I was. When I came to Haskell, I gained a lot more self-confidence. For once, I didn't have to worry about being the minority."
A recent study by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium found that 74 percent of tribal college graduates surveyed said they were employed. Many student-athletes talk of returning home to teach or coach at reservation schools.
"Most of the time, the environment for children on the reservation isn't very positive," says Mossett, a former all-conference center at Halliday (N.D.) High School. "So if you go back and prove to them that you can get a college degree, they see that as an accomplishment."
Of course, many students from the reservation take bad habits with them to Haskell -Êwhich is often hounded by its reputation as a party school.
"It really depends on the youngster," says former Olympic track champion Billy Mills, a Pine Ridge native who attended boarding school at Haskell in the 1950s.
"If the youngster comes from a dysfunctional family and takes his dysfunctions with him to Haskell, he's going to have problems. But if that person is focused and goes there for education, he'll get that education at Haskell."
During the first week of classes, Mossett and her teammates -Êincluding former Crow Creek star Jessica Squirrel Coat - filed into the college's venerable auditorium for fall convocation.
On stage, before an undermanned band struck up the school song, student senate president Casey Douma urged his classmates to help make Haskell a symbol of future success.
"All those good reasons you came here -Êdon't lose track of them," he said. "Let's leave our bad habits behind, because Indian Country is depending on each and every one of us. Now is the first step in our mission to make things better."
Home sweet home
"They all came back and didn't finish," says Fallis, 18, whose parents attended the University of South Dakota. "I promised my dad that I'd be the first one of his kids to get done with college. I don't want to disappoint him."
Fallis, a freshman basketball player at Huron, knows how homesickness on a college campus can leave Native American students longing for their close-knit reservation communities.
So she's happy to see so many Indian classmates at Huron, which opened a Native American Cultural Center last November to help students feel more at home.
"If you're going to have Native Americans who are used to the reservation, you have to have special situations for them to prosper," says Smith, the vice president of operations. "We wanted to give them a place where they can hang out and attend events that are particular to their culture.
"We'd also like to see a blend of culture, so our other students can understand Native American traditions and vice-versa. Our (white) students should know what a powwow or a sweat lodge is, and we'd like our Native American students to understand some of the things that we do."
Despite these efforts, it's not uncommon for Native American athletes to leave campus abruptly because of tribal events or family-related emergencies back on the reservation.
Sometimes that forces a coach to live with the inconvenience and make a cultural compromise.
"The bottom line is that they're people, and they have different things that go on in their culture that you have to be sensitive to," says Pollard, who once taught and coached on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
"If there's something going on with their family, they're expected to be there - and sometimes that gets in the way. But if you don't allow for flexibility and just say, ÔThis is the way it's going to be,' you're going to have problems."
Of course, the compromise works both ways.
In the middle of last season, Huron guard Sunshine Archambault was called home to North Dakota's Standing Rock Reservation for a ceremony. But because of a conflict with an important game, the tribal council changed the day of the event so she could do both.
It's part of the unique transition at tribally owned Huron, where a little understanding will go a long way.
"There are still biases and misgivings out there," says Huron athletic director Henley. "But once you understand some of the basic beliefs people have, it's easier to meet them halfway. It takes a while to be educated, or even to be willing to learn. In many cases, people haven't even taken the time to care."
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