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Inter Tribal Sports Binds Southern California Indian Tribes

Story about Inter Tribal Sports, a company that brings members of Southern California tribes closer together through sport and Native values.

By their very nature, organized sports inspire team-building and unity. Take a bunch of individuals, mold them into one mind and heart, and if you’ve done the job well, you’ve created an entity that’s greater than the sum of its individual parts. Inter Tribal Sports (ITS), based in Temecula, California, takes this concept one step further. For the past decade, ITS has brought members of Southern California tribes closer together through sport and Native values.

ITS launched in 2002, when the Viejas, Barona and San Pasqual tribes, as well as the All Tribes Charter School in the greater-San Diego area, recognized the need to provide more athletic opportunities for their youth. Ben Foster, who at the time was recreation manager for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, played a key role in getting the group off the ground.

“We all recognized there was an absence of opportunity for youth sports,” says Foster, who is now ITS’s executive director. “The kids could go out to the city leagues and the Pop Warners and Little Leagues. For various reasons, a lot of them weren’t getting involved in that. There were cost factors, travel factors and the separation from their Native peer group. We recognized that there was an opportunity to provide something similar but just for the Native communities. That was really the motivation to start.”

ITS’s first organized sports effort was an informal flag-football league for the youth from all four tribes. Next, it offered league play for basketball and softball. Altogether, ITS has served nearly 2,500 individuals from 22 tribes and tribal organizations, including the Viejas, Barona, Sycuan and Pechanga tribes.

“We’re a values-based organization teaching sportsmanship and teamwork and, maybe most importantly, teaching them how to win and lose and understanding you’re going to lose in life,” Foster says. “You’re not always going to come out on top. Accepting that, coping with it and learning how to build from that, you become stronger when you face adversity.”

But organized sports are only part of the ITS playbook. Foster’s group stands apart from other sports leagues because it draws upon the culture of the Southern California tribes. ITS sponsors traditional youth gatherings twice a year; the focus is on indigenous California tribal art and culture, including bird songs and dances. Pow wow drums, too, have participated.

“That’s really one of the fundamental aspects of our program and probably why we saw the need to offer something different from just the regular large youth-sports organizations in the urban settings,” says Foster. “There’s that recognition, the need for including the culture and being sensitive to the culture and the traditions.”

From its inception, Inter Tribal has been a success both athletically and culturally. Organizationally speaking, though, Foster acknowledges that things were a bit haphazard for a while. Fortunately, things have lately gotten better, with ITS receiving an increasing number of sponsorships and grants. But that has now changed, and along with its more-unified operations, ITS is receiving increased sponsorships and grants. Much of the money comes from the Nike N7 program, which in 2010 gave ITS a grant of $25,000, followed by $35,000 this year.

“They really want to build partnerships and relationships with organizations and support them on an ongoing basis,” Foster says of Nike, “which is unique in the grant-funding world. Oftentimes, it’s just one-and-done.”

Although ITS measures success on multiple levels, Foster sees incredible strides off the field as well. ITS brings communities and families together. In many cases, Foster says, some relatives haven’t seen one another in many years. Now athletic events are reuniting them. A frequent refrain among them is, “We used to get together only for funerals. Now we’re coming together for positive reasons.”

Not surprisingly, Foster sees a bright future for ITS as its influence extends not only to the tribes in Southern California, but throughout Indian country as well. “I think the possibilities are really limitless,” he says. “There’s so many things we can do. Maintaining those core values, that cultural identity and that cultural pride, are the key to ensuring that this is a lasting program that will serve thousands of Native youth.”