Native American pathbreakers
The original inhabitants of America, Native Americans today have been side-lined from almost all aspects of society. Centuries of brutal settler colonialism have rendered them almost invisible from daily American life.
To highlight and recognise the significant contributions made by Native Americans to the growth of the US, November is marked as Native American Heritage Month. Though sport continues to be a field where Native Americans are under-represented, here are six Native American sportspersons who have excelled in this field and paved the way for others.
Charles Albert Bender, often known as Chief, was born in Brainerd, Minnesota in 1883. He was a right-handed pitcher in professional baseball and is credited with inventing the slider pitch.
Bender's mother was part Ojibwa, and he spent his childhood on a reserve and in Native American schools. Bender was given the nickname "Chief" due to his heritage, but he thought it was derogatory and always signed autographs as "Charles Bender."
Bender pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1903 through 1914, winning roughly 200 regular-season games and six World Series games, leading the American League in winning percentage in 1910 and 1914.
Bender played for the Baltimore Orioles in the short-lived Federal League in 1915, then for the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League in 1916 and 1917. During his career, he pitched 3,017 innings with a 2.46 earned run average. Bender worked as a scout, manager and coach for numerous teams after his playing career ended. In 1953, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
James Francis Thorpe was born in 1888, near Prague, Indian Territory, United States. He was one of the most outstanding all-round athletes in history and was named the best American athlete and the greatest gridiron football player of the first half of the twentieth century by American sportswriters and broadcasters in 1950.
Thorpe, whose mother was from the Sauk and Meskaki tribes, attended Haskell Indian School and Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Lawrence, Kansas. He was selected as a halfback on Walter Camp's All-America teams in 1911 and 1912 while playing football for Carlisle under coach Pop Warner.
Thorpe also won the decathlon and pentathlon by large margins at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, upon finding out that he had played semi-professional baseball in 1909 and 1910, he was disqualified and stripped of his gold medals. In 1983, the IOC restored his medals, 30 years after his death.
Thorpe played outfield for the National League's New York Yankees, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Red Sox from 1913 to 1919. From 1919 to 1926, he was more successful as one of the early stars of American professional football. He served two seasons with the Oorang Indians in 1922-1923.
Basketball, boxing, lacrosse, swimming, and hockey were among his many achievements. Even as he was hailed as one of the greatest athletes of all time in magazine and newspaper stories, Thorpe's alcoholism and failure to find work outside of sports drove him to near poverty in his later years.
Billy Mills was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in 1938. Mills was Sioux and raised on an Oglala Sioux Indian reservation. He excelled in track events at the Haskell Institute and at the University of Kansas. He returned to racing in 1964 while serving in the United States Marine Corps, qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics that year.
Mills was a relatively unknown competitor in the 10,000-meter race; the favourite to win was Australia's Ron Clarke, who held the world record. In the final lap of the race, Mills beat Clarke to win the Olympic gold, becoming the first American athlete to win a gold medal in this race.
In 1965, he set an outdoor world record in the six-mile run (27 minutes 11.6 seconds) and set American records in the 10,000-meter and indoor three-mile races. Mills co-founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth in 1986, a non-profit organization that provides health and housing while also promoting traditional cultures and languages. Mills received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Barack Obama in 2013.
Nyla Rose is a former one-time All Elite Wrestling (AEW) Women's World Champion. Rose was born in 1982 in Washington, D.C., and she received her training in West Virginia at the KYDA Pro Training School. In 2012, she made her pro wrestling debut. Rose won her first singles championship after winning Covey Promotions' Women's Championship in August of her debut year.
She went on to win the CP Women's title twice more, giving her a total of three titles. Rose also won the Women's Championship title in the United Pro Wrestling Association and was a two-time Warriors of Wrestling Women's Champion.
Rose became the first out transgender wrestler to be signed by a major U.S. wrestling promotion when she signed a full-time contract with AEW in February 2019. Upon winning the AEW Women’s World Championship in 2020, she also became the first trans wrestler to win a title in a major American promotion. Rose is of African-American and Oneida descent.
Sam Bradford was born in Oklahoma City in 1987 and is a quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League. A member of the Cherokee nation, Bradford graduated from Putnam City North High School and then went on to the University of Oklahoma. He entered the NFL draft before finishing his degree in 2010.
Bradford was a three-year starter for the Oklahoma Sooners in collegiate football. In 2008, he received a variety of awards, and the Associated Press and Sporting News voted him Player of the Year in 2008. Bradford was the first overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams and was named the team's starting quarterback. He was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010, after setting a new record for most completions by a rookie quarterback with 169.
Bradford was plagued by injuries from 2011 to 2014. In 2015, he was dealt to the Philadelphia Eagles, but was moved soon after to the Minnesota Vikings.
Bradford credits his grandfather for exposing him to the world of sports. In addition to football, he has competed in basketball and golf.
Kali Reis is an American professional boxer, born in 1986. She has held the World Boxing Association female super lightweight championship since November 2020 and the World Boxing Council female middleweight belt since 2016. She is a world champion in two weight classes.
Reis was a physically active kid who enjoyed playing with the neighbouring kids. She was involved in basketball and softball leagues in high school and began boxing at the age of 14. Reis had a strong amateur career before turning professional, winning the 2007 Rocky Marciano Championship, 2007 NYC Golden Gloves, and 2006 New England 154 Championship. Apart from boxing professionally, Reis also works as a trainer and instructs youth boxing.
Reis has Cherokee, Nipmuc, and Seaconke Wampanoag heritage and is a strong supporter of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls campaign. Reis blends her passion for boxing with her support for Native women by teaching young community members about their skills to fight against the targeting of Native youngsters.