November 02, 2008

Jocks aren't good role models

Cedric Sunray: Athletic lessons in Indian CountryNotah Begay, Joba Chamberlain, Jenna Plumley and … Sam Bradford? Norman Van Lier (former NBA All-Star and Chicago Bulls player) may have said it best when he remarked, "In America there is too much emphasis placed on the value of sports."

Recent news reports that Joba Chamberlain, New York Yankee pitcher and enrolled Winnebago, was arrested on a DUI charge in his home state of Nebraska. Following in the footsteps of Navajo PGA golfer Notah Begay. Jenna Plumley, former guard for the University of Oklahoma Sooners women's basketball program and current Lamar University player from Red Rock, Oklahoma, didn't fare much better when she was arrested on petty theft charges arising from an incident at Wal-Mart that eventually hastened her exit out of Norman. And now we have Sam Bradford, starting OU quarterback and Cherokee citizen, to raise up to God status. But there is one catch for this Sooner … does he fit the profile? In a recent New York Times article entitled "Sooners' Bradford is Accidental Cherokee Hero" it reads, "...his father Kent said he had probably only talked to his son about it two or three times as he grew up in Oklahoma City (referring to his Cherokee heritage). His father goes on to say, "There's a lot of people in Oklahoma that have Indian blood. I wasn't brought up to really know much about it. I can't really give him a lot of information either. … At times, it's somewhat awkward in that he and I are portrayed as Indians. … We do have some Indian blood, but that isn't us out here counting that."

Oh, but Indian Country is. Especially in Eastern Oklahoma, where finding someone who doesn't have some minor claim to fractional Indian descent is like finding a needle in a haystack. All one can guess is that once actual Indians fall short of the unbelievable expectations placed upon them, by an at times misguided constituency, we just "create" a new one, even if 99 out of 100 criteria for being Indian can't be justified. To Sam and Kent Bradford's credit, they did not create this Indian perception, it was thrust upon them. For some in athletic circles it could be viewed as much a curse as a blessing. And even more to their credit, they didn't get swallowed up in the rhetoric and "play Indian" like so many others who have recently discovered some Indian ancestry tying them to the Dawes Roll and have run falling all over themselves to the tribal registrar's office at the Cherokee Nation complex.

Notah Begay can swing a golf club, Joba Chamberlain can throw a baseball and Jenna Plumley can shoot a basketball. And did I mention, they can all do these things very well. These qualifications, while impressive in an athletic world, don't necessarily translate to role model material.
Comment: I can understand why Indians may be hungry for role models. But here are a couple of guidelines for finding suitable role models:

1) Choose people other than sports figures. Half their success is due to simple genetics, which is nothing to brag about. And half is due to simple hard work and discipline, which is nice but not exceptional. (Everyone from Nobel Prize winners to ditch diggers work hard, so this quality alone isn't worth honoring.)

I'd suggest choosing intelligent, creative people as role models. You know, writers, artists, filmmakers, teachers, researchers, activists, political leaders. In other words, anybody who is concerned and caring enough to address Native issues. And who does so with brains rather than brawn. (Alas, that doesn't include most sports figures.)

2) Choose actual Indians. Not people who have only a fraction of Indian blood through an accident of birth. And not people who know little or nothing about their Indian heritage. Choose people who identify themselves as Indians and work diligently to support and strengthen their heritage.

There are many Indians worth admiring and emulating. Not just elders or celebrities (e.g., Sherman Alexie, Adam Beach). For instance, here are seven Indians under 50 whom I've mentioned before: Deron Marquez, Kalyn Free, Bunky Echo-Hawk, Arigon Starr, James Lujan, Natasha Kaye Johnson, Chad Solomon. They're among the myriad of rising stars in Indian country.


Anonymous said...

"My Space" to Comment -

1. People who are (marginally) genetically Indian are not good role models for the majority of Indian youth who reside at both rural and urban locales, as they simply do not look Indian and as such are less credible as role models for most of our young people. The majority of the Indians described on this particular blog appear to be Caucasian (as do the vast majority of Indians who are 1/4 or less Indian by blood). All of my Indian role models at least looked Indian, which was very important to me as I am close to full-blooded. All of my heroes as a kid were the rough, tough, old full-blooded WWII and Korean war vets from my rez who epitomized the utmost in courage - and in spite of what they'd all been through in terms of their combat experiences, they were exceptionally humorous and kind.

2. It's extremely difficult to believe in this day and age that a person who identifies as Indian would "lack the resources" to obtain knowledge and awareness regarding their heritage as there are countless resources readily at hand in those areas that have significant Indian populations and the Internet for those who are physically isolated from their people. "Seek and ye will find" - I say to these individuals.

3. Sports figures as role models for Indian youth are about as feasible as entertainment figures given the near phantasmagoric odds of most young people, across all of the current divides, becoming major "stars" in either of these realms. And with the current scourge of widespread doping to enhance athletic performance, sports will never again be what it was in Billy Mills's day.

gaZelbe said...

Far from being an easy question or simple issue, I ultimately believe that Indian role models need to be as close to full-blood as possible. I have to admit that I'm not comfortable making that statement. That being said, none of these issues exist in a vacuum. Indian youth are inundated every hour of every day with the message that white is right. They are under so much pressure to talk white, act white and look white, that I feel that it would be irresponsible to reinforce this in any way. I could not hold up an image of a blue-eyed, blonde haired person and tell my dark-skinned son, "This is a good Indian". No way. All Indians struggle with self-image in the face of cultural colonialism. It may not be fair, but nothing about Indians is ever fair.

Now of course, I do feel I have to explicitly say that I would never tell an Indian child that white is bad. With all the work that needs to be done in the area of building Indian children's self-esteem, I don't think there is time or energy to waste condemning or dismissing other cultures.

gaZelbe said...

On the whole, I think I have to disagree with the premise of this article as it is worded.

I do think that athletic ability in and of itself is a weak characteristic to praise. Regardless, look at the very next Newspaper Rock article after this one. Reggie Mitchell is essentially a jock. His defining ability is athletic. But what does he do with this gift? Does he pursue wealth for himself through professional sports? No. He uses his gifts to directly help his people through health programs and espousing anti-violence. He is a jock and a role model.

I think we need to be more selective in the jocks we choose to hold high before our children. Some random white boy with a drop of Indian blood using his gifts for himself doesn't even come close.

Anonymous said...

Additionally, black-oriented, low end, inner city, "hip hop" culture has already made significant inroads into the hearts and minds of Indian youth across America - hence, Indian role models who are indeed highly (physically) visible as Indians (meaning close to full-blooded) are obviously the answer to this on-going issue.

Rob said...

Genevieve, the phrase "accident of birth" refers to the fact that no one chooses their parents or their genetics. People shouldn't get credit solely for being "mixed bloods" or "full bloods." Their blood isn't something they've earned.

If someone said, "I deserve your respect because I'm 100% (or 75%, or 50%, or 25%) Indian and you're not," my answer probably would be no. I don't care how much of an Indian you are. If you're not honoring your people or your culture as I see it, it doesn't matter how much blood you have. Hence my frequent criticism of the full-blooded Russell Means and the nearly full-blooded Russell Bates.

I think you've inferred a criticism of mixed bloods that wasn't there. My main point was that people shouldn't get credit for being "little or no bloods." In other words, I was contrasting full or mixed bloods with little or no bloods. I wasn't contrasting full bloods with mixed bloods.

Anonymous said...

Russell Means is by no means full-blooded (4/4's Indian by blood quantum per the U.S. federal standards).

He is part Irish on his father's side.

His hair is quite wavy ('a la Larry of the Three Stooges), which is why he uses a ton of Pomade to slick down and straighten out his curly locks - which are about shoulder length to which are attached these bizarre braided leather thongs that make him look like he has long hair.

He gets an "A" for effort, though.

Rob said...

I thought I read somewhere that Russell Means was full-blooded. But I guess he's just an "almost" like Russell Bates. Here's what it says on Means's campaign website:

Born on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in 1939, Russell Means is the eldest son of Hank Means, an Oglala Sioux, and Theodora (Feather) Means, a full-blooded Yankton Sioux.

Rob said...

Continuing with my previous point...Genevieve, you seem to think "accident of birth" refers to an unwanted or second-class person. Not so. Here's the actual definition:

Accident of birth is a phrase pointing out that no one has any control of, or responsibility for, the circumstances of their birth or parentage. With a modern scientific understanding of genetics, one can reasonably call any human being's entire genome an accident of birth. The place of birth of a baby has an effect in immigration law of many nations, so that an 'accidental' birth in an airport lounge may entitle a person to a passport in later life.

More broadly, gender, family circumstances, cultural background, access to education, inheritance rights, are all examples of accidents of birth. Individual responsibility, from the age of majority certainly, is supposed to cut across all these matters.

Rob said...

Another definition makes this even clearer:

5. a fortuitous circumstance, quality, or characteristic: an accident of birth.

The word "fortuitous" is, well, fortuitous because it helps make my point. Consider the case of Sam Bradford, the 1/16th Cherokee quarterback. If we were to describe his situation, we might say:

"Normally Indians wouldn't pay much attention to a plain-vanilla athlete like Sam Bradford. But because of a fortuitous accident of birth, he's 1/16th Cherokee. To his surprise, that's made him a hero among Oklahoma's Native population.", it wasn't a "crap choice of words." It says what I wanted it to say. Bradford isn't an Indian because he was raised in an Indian culture. Because he was taught to think and act like an Indian. He's an Indian only because his great-grandmother was one. As I think he'd agree, he benefited from an accident of birth.

Returning to the previous definition, it says everyone's genetics are an accident of birth. I'm almost pure white and someone else is almost pure Indian because of accidents of birth. None of us chose our genetics; we got them through circumstances beyond our control.

Rob said...

Moving on to another point....

True, Gazelbe, people are listening to Reggie Mitchell because of his background as a martial artist. But are they honoring him for that? I don't think so. I think they're honoring him for what he's teaching, not for who he is.

Mitchell is offering a role model for Native youths to emulate, but it's not his past as a martial artist. It's his present as someone who's giving back to his people. Being a "servant" is the highest calling, he's saying, not being a martial artist.

This seems clear from the presentation described in the article. It's all about the great warriors of the past, not about Mitchell himself. He's basically telling kids, "Don't be a warrior who fights like I was. Be a warrior who serves like I am."

P.S. For more on my use of the phrase "actual Indians," see "Actual Indian" Defined.