During my second year in university twenty-three years ago, I had the opportunity to compete against Georgetown University in the athletic arena. Back then, Georgetown was the face of NCAA success and was the school many young student-athletes across the country aspired to sign with.
Little has changed in those regards over the many years since that game was played (which unfortunately ended with my university team on the losing side), but the “neighborhood” certainly has. Once known as “Chocolate City” due to the majority Black population, D.C. has gone the same way of many other major metropolitan areas through the process of gentrification.
Today there exists a precarious balance between the generational families of the area and the newcomers. Aside from the predominance of issues exposed between the Black and White communities over the years in this city, exists the reality that virtually all decisions which have impacted Indian Country did then, and continue today, to grow from the political power brokers which control its landscape; political brokers whose demographic rarely includes the very people who are being dictated to. Add to this the moniker of the local professional football team and most would view the environment as not the most hospitable to the indigenous population of what is now known as North America.
This year, despite all of this, the most unlikely of visitors began classes at the venerable educational institution in the nation’s capital. His name is Jesse Gibson.
Jesse Gibson (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Coushatta) from Oklahoma is yet another example of the exceptional standards upheld by Georgetown. In his second semester, he may be one of only a few American Indian NCAA Division I collegiate swimmers in the nation. That talent, however, has always taken a back seat to his academic endeavors.
His choice of Georgetown was predicated on its rigorous academic structure and its limitless internship possibilities.
In terms of academics, he has found a home in the university’s Walsh School of Foreign Service where he is looking seriously at the Regional and Comparative Studies major focusing on Sustainable Development in Latin America and Africa, as well as the International Politics and Science and Technology in International Affairs majors.
Gibson grew up in Norman, Oklahoma attending the city’s only All-Indian church, First American United Methodist Church; a church that incorporates belief systems such as Native American Church meetings, sweat lodge ceremonies, and other traditional teachings as diverse as the multi-tribal congregation it serves.
Despite the initial skepticism that a swimmer could learn their trade in the land locked former Indian Territory, I was taken by his message and accomplishment at such a young age. Gibson’s roots in Norman, Oklahoma boast established swim programs and two public high schools which consistently compete state wide. Norman High School is Gibson’s alma mater where he won many accolades to include state runner-up and an All-State selection. He participated in soccer, baseball, football, and basketball. Taking on swimming to lose weight, he realized he had a natural talent for the sport.
“My parents did everything that they could to make sure that I was able to pursue anything that I was passionate about. I couldn’t have asked for two more supportive people to raise me,” said Gibson. He held similar words for his older brothers, especially Justus, a junior majoring in Physics at the University of Denver, who first motivated him to swim.
Aside from his athletic and academic success issues, Gibson spoke about the economic divide at Georgetown and the need for an outreach program for low-income communities and prospective students, especially Indians.
“We have a disproportionate amount of students from affluent households and for many of my friends I have made here, I am the first Indian they’ve ever met.”
Though Gibson says he loves his university, he still misses his home and his cultural ties. “I love my university with all my heart. I have been listening to a lot more Northern Cree to try and cope.”
“My culture is the most comforting thing to me. No matter how far away from home I go, I’m still an Indian. I can still hum a Kiowa or Choctaw hymn from my church back home. I can still smell cedar and know the importance. I can recite prayers in Choctaw. I can do all of those things no matter where I am, which means I always have home with me.”
With only a small percentage of Indian students attending the college and very few American Indians competing athletically at the NCAA D-I level, his place and the responsibility it entails is not lost on Jesse.
“One of my trainers informed me when I was getting a check-up that I was actually the first Indian he’d ever worked with. I think that holds true to all of them. As far as I can tell, I’m the only Indian varsity athlete on campus, so I feel like I definitely need to prove what we can do,” he said.
As a resident in Washington D.C., the home of the Washington Redskins and due to his status as a Division I athlete, he was quick to discuss the issue of Native mascots in sports.
“I think it’s ridiculous and disgusting that in this day and age we can completely ignore the feelings of one ethnic group. Living in DC, I am exposed to Redskins merchandise all of the time. Were there a team like, ‘The Cleveland ---words’ or something similar using another racial slur, it would be considered the highest of hate crimes. It is a blatant disrespect for indigenous thoughts, feelings, and rights to have sports teams named after us, especially when they use slurs like ‘Redskins’ or ‘Chiefs.’ I think it is especially ridiculous that a state with as sizable an Indian population as Oklahoma has so many schools that have these mascots. These mascots are proof that the problems Indian people possess are still viewed as lesser than the problems of any other racial group in this country, even though the atrocities committed against us are some of the worst humanity has ever witnessed.”
Where a young person finds such a powerful voice is always of interest to me. Outside of his parents and siblings he gives credit for his current success to his swim coaches in Oklahoma, former State Senator and Chief of the Seminole Nation Enoch Kelly Haney, and his late grandfather and World War II veteran Bennie Gibson. As he explained to me about his grandfather who taught school for years on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico,
“I have never met a man that had more love in his heart than my grandfather. He was the gentlest, kindest, most spiritual man I have ever had the pleasure to know up until the day he passed. I will be lucky to end up half the man that my grandfather was.”
Jesse Gibson is the kind of young person who humbly and sincerely defers his success to the contributions and support of others. He is the type of young man a father prays his son to become.
His current position in life can be summed up by his own words.
“I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be and doing what I’m supposed to do.”
May we all be so blessed.