History, Human Rights, and Basketball

POSTED BY MARTIN KICH

Bronson Koenig is a guard on the University of Wisconsin basketball team. He is also a Native American. This fall he visited Standing Rock not just to participate in the protests against the Dakota pipeline but also to conduct basketball clinics. In “What I Found at Standing Rock,” a piece for the Players Tribune, he writes very insightfully and movingly about this experience. He also tries to place it in the context of his broader awareness of his Native American identity. The following paragraphs are from the middle of the essay:

“I’m one of about 60 Native American students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a school with more than 30,000 undergrads, and one of only about 40 Native American Division I men’s college basketball players in the country. I’m not too surprised that almost no one at school knew much about the Ho-Chunk tribe. My whole life, I’ve had friends and classmates ask me the most basic questions about my heritage. Did I wear feathers? Do my parents run a casino? One high school classmate even admitted that he didn’t think Indian reservations still existed. Before I got to college, I had rarely ever heard a mention of Native American history in school — all I remember from 11th grade is some reading about Native American agriculture and a couple of paragraphs in a history book on the Trail of Tears, the forced march on which all those people died in the winter of 1838.

“Three years ago, on one of my first days in Madison, a man stopped me in the hall on the way to class. He introduced himself as Don Stanley, a professor of media and digital marketing. Students here know Professor Stanley as a huge Badgers sports fan, but on the day we met he started off by asking me about the Ho-Chunk wellness center in Baraboo, a town an hour east of my hometown of La Crosse. He had volunteered there for a few years . . . did I know of it? Of course I did. In fact, I had played a few basketball tournaments there when I was growing up.

“Then he took me by surprise again when he told me that he was member of the Oneida Nation, a tribe from New York, and that he now lives on land that used to be Ho-Chunk land.

“My knowledge of Ho-Chunk history had some gaps.

“Professor Stanley told me that in the 1800s, the Ho-Chunk were forcibly relocated from Wisconsin several times by the U.S. government. Years later, a small number of Ho-Chunks resettled in the state but many spread around the country.

“Professor Stanley and I became friends, and we’ve since had many conversations about Native American history. At Madison, I have sought out as many classes as I could that had to do with Native American issues. I was always curious about my culture, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I really started to do my own research. . . .

“Over time, I opened up to Professor Stanley about my struggle to understand my own identity. Being a light-skinned Native American, with a white father and a mother who is Ho-Chunk, I told him how I often felt like a minority within a minority. Not Native enough. Not white enough. Like a stranger in two lands. I’m still struggling with that feeling. It’s one of the reasons I went to Standing Rock.”

The conclusion of the piece is especially incisive without being at all polemical:

“Now it’s December, too cold for kids to play on the outdoor hoop. There’s a foot of snow covering the Standing Rock camp, and the North Dakota governor is calling for the eviction of the protesters. Many Natives fear that critical supplies for survival, like firewood and food, will be blocked. This has the potential to be a traumatic replay of so much of our history.

“I’m seeing reports that police have used high-pressure water cannons on protesters — men, women and children. In the subfreezing North Dakota winter, that’s a potentially deadly combination.

“As we head toward the middle of our season, I can’t help but think about the cruel irony that water is being used as a weapon against Native Americans who are trying to protect their own water supply.

“I’m a senior in college, so for me it feels like everything is about looking forward: next March, the NCAA Tournament, another dream. Then graduation and the NBA draft in the spring. After that, maybe the sky’s the limit.

“As I move ahead, I’m going to remember those who came before me. I’ll be thinking of the famous words of Chief Sitting Bull, who died on Standing Rock more than a century ago, not far from the camp I visited. He said, ‘If a man loses anything and goes back and looks carefully for it, he will find it.’

“Today, the target may be Standing Rock. But Native people aren’t the only ones who are affected by threats to the environment. Clean water is a precious resource. It belongs to all of us, whatever our heritage. We must all protect it.

“Will you stand with Standing Rock?”

Bronson Koenig’s complete article is available at: http://www.theplayerstribune.com/bronson-koenig-wisconsin-basketball-standing-rock/.

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