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Bodybuilder lifts bar for Native youth

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WAHPETON, N.D. – Veins bulge from Tanner Rabbit Head’s neck and arms at the gym in town. Doing bicep curls, the competitive bodybuilder’s arms swell as if basketballs about to pop. Then, he switches to free weights. He pumps massive dumbbells with ease, defying gravity and human anatomy. Outside the gym, he is a soft-spoken – albeit physically imposing – role model for students at the Circle of Nations School.

Rabbit Head is a child protection officer and athletic director at the American Indian boarding school. He also competes in bodybuilding shows; he placed fourth among the heavyweights in Fargo at the NPC Upper Midwest National Qualifier Bodybuilding Championships last April.

During the past school year, the 29-year-old citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes balanced preparation for NPC’s competition with regular duties at Circle of Nations School. He coached, coordinated events, and worked with police and probation officers; meanwhile he helped Native students shoulder a burden less tangible than weights in a gym – adolescence.

Then nature decided to complicate the landscape.

Tanner Rabbit Heads workout regimen changes throughout the year. In the summer, he lifts lower reps with higher weight to bulk up. But when he has a show to prepare for, he lifts lower weight at higher repetitions.

Torrential snowmelt, blizzards and ice jams flooded much of North Dakota. NPC canceled the March 28 date. The change threw Rabbit Head’s routine into chaos. But he didn’t have time to notice. He was too busy sandbagging the Red River. Rabbit Head joined 16 other Circle of Nations employees and 38 student volunteers who worked for days to save Wahpeton. The chamber of commerce presented the school with a plaque for its contribution. And NPC rescheduled the national qualifier for April 11 in Fargo.

Unfortunately, the damage was done. “That kind of threw me off, and it threw the competition off, too. I think that show ended up losing 30 competitors.”

Rabbit Head had been gearing up for top performance physique. He had increased workout repetitions and lowered weight to increase muscle definition. Every available hour had vanished in a flurry of exercise before flood control took priority.

“When I’m getting ready for a competition, I’m pretty much in the gym every day lifting weights and then doing a lot of cardio,” he said. “But right now, I’m doing four days of lifting and then taking a couple of days off and then doing that over again.”

His older brothers motivated Rabbit Head’s love for athletics. They mentored him through junior high school football, but military deployments meant they didn’t get to watch their kid brother become quarterback for the New Town Eagles on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation (and they didn’t see him excel in high school wrestling, track or baseball, either – although the elder, RJ Rabbit Head, now attests to his younger brother’s ability to whack a softball into the stratosphere).

After graduating high school, Rabbit Head began lifting weights seriously. He played halfback for the semi-pro Brookings WolfPack while attending South Dakota State University. And he worked at PowerShop Gym, where his boss was a bodybuilder competing in the Team Universe show in New York.

Rabbit Head’s elder brother came back from deployment in ’93, and was shocked.

“It made me feel proud to see my younger brother be that disciplined,” RJ said. “Especially with Natives, you don’t see a lot of people staying healthy and pushing weights.”

The younger Rabbit Head entered a football combine in Illinois as a fullback. Although a few NFL Europe teams expressed interest, family life swept him away. He got married and now has three daughters.

In 2003, he finished college and went to work at Circle of Nations, where his elder brother was working. He competed in his first bodybuilding show as a light heavyweight the same year; then in 2005, won the Upper Midwest Competition in the heavyweight class.

Circle of Nations – previously known as the Wahpeton Boarding School – celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008. The off-reservation campus boasts new boys and girls dorms that housed roughly 120 students last year but could accommodate 250 fourth through eighth graders. The all-Native student body represents 30 tribes from across 17 states from North Carolina to California.

Rabbit Head said the students enroll in Circle of Nations for various reasons.

“If the kid wants to come here, they can,” he said. “Then we have these other students who are getting into trouble back home and the parent needs somewhere to send them and they’ll send them to us. Otherwise, we might have a kid back home who doesn’t have anything, and they’ll come to us. Or if the kid wants to get away from everything from the reservation, they’ll come here.”

Sometimes, RJ (Circle of Nations residential director) said the enrollment is court ordered.

Nevertheless, colleagues say students from all backgrounds admire their likeable coach/enforcer. Joe Williams Jr. (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) is a behavioral technician at Circle of Nations, and he knows why. He said Rabbit Head shows the students respect.

“When they get in trouble or if they come to him with some questions, he really makes time and listens. Whenever the kids have any issue in the school, it seems that the first adult they want to talk to is Tanner.”

Students also want the bodybuilder for a lifting partner, especially the football players.

“My favorite thing about bodybuilding is staying in shape and maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” Rabbit Head said. “Then working with the kids, I’ve always liked working with kids. My older brothers had kids, so I grew up with them being around.”

Because he grew up on a reservation, like many of the students, Rabbit Head said he relates to their troubles. Still, his workday can be stressful, and weightlifting offers a healthy detachment from daily life.