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Warrior Grounds: A Tornado Story

Moore, Oklahoma is the community where my wife and her siblings would ride their dirt bikes for miles during their upbringing. It was the place her brother would play high school football and she would run track. A place their family has so many fond memories and stories of.

Today, we live only a few miles from her old neighborhood on the north side of neighboring Norman, Oklahoma. Our eldest child’s school sits near the invisible line which technically separates the two cities. On May 20th I raced with our youngest son in tow to pick her up early from school after hearing the local weather report. Only hours later some of her classmates would lose their homes.

For the last few days my wife’s heart has been heavy. Our loved ones residing in the area were spared the greatest of tragedies, but so many others were not.

The Oklahoma City metro area which includes Moore and Norman is one sprawling metropolis which has long been home to many Indian people from across the state and nation. It is well known athletically for its powerful University of Oklahoma sports program, which has a storied history of Indian athletic participation, and more recently for the NBA Thunder. Less well known are the numerous Indian coaches in both the public and private school systems which stretch across the metro to the eastern tip of Little Axe. For the last few months I have been sitting down with Indian fathers and coaches and their sons (with a future article on Indian mothers and daughters in the works) in an attempt to fully understand the connection between Indian men and their boys and how sports have been utilized to strengthen this bond. The goal was to not completely erase the stereotype of contemporary Indian communities being “fatherless societies”, but at least to challenge the complexity of such a blanketed and detrimental statement.

Coach Patrick McClung and son Patrick after their final high school football game together

Lindy Waters (Kiowa/Cherokee) was a former stand out collegiate basketball player, but you won’t hear him talk too much about that. Today his life is consumed as a father of four, administrator at the University of Oklahoma, and Indian community advocate. His son Lindy III, better known as Tre, is a starting freshman on his large class high school basketball team in Norman. At 15, he is already receiving offers from various colleges both in and out of state. His father has been his coach for most of his life.

“Basketball for me was the last warrior grounds. To see him compete in these Indian tournaments is a source of pride for our family. All the accolades in high school and AAU tournaments of course are appreciated, but it is his fellowship and connection with all the other Indian athletes at Indian tournaments that makes me the most proud.”

It should be mentioned here that Tre’s numerous athletic awards are only as enviable as his academic achievements. His parents have been married for twenty four years and he told me,

“That is all I know. My parents being together, Being supportive of us all. We take it for granted. Some fathers go hunting and fishing. We play sports. We are talking basketball all the time. My close friend only has his mom and it looks a lot harder. My dad pushes me a lot and he wants to see me be successful. I don’t feel pressured, just supported.”

Mat McIntosh (Creek), a father of five, coaches baseball at Community Christian School located near the Moore and Norman dividing line. Like Lindy’s son, his oldest boy Haddon is also a standout athlete though only a high school freshman. Mat, like four generations of Creek Indian church pastors before him, prefaces his familial relationship and life via his connection to God and his tribal community.

“We recognize that everything we do is a reflection of our faith; a reflection of our people. How we handle success, defeat, ridicule, and praise.”

His son shared these same sentiments when I asked him how he felt about his father. His immediate response was, “My earthly or heavenly father?” And it was spoken with straight faced conviction. I explained to him that I was speaking of his dad and he quickly responded, “Sports has been a lot of time we get to spend together. It brings us closer. It is a lot of time that other people don’t have.” His dad reiterated the sentiment, “That is a big reason why I am coaching high school ball because of the time I get to spend with my son. I wouldn’t get as much of an opportunity without it. Team sports teach us the importance of working hard so other people can prosper and benefit.”

Our conversation then shifted to the importance of family foundations. Mat began,

“Our marriage matters a great deal. We talk to him about being a good husband and good father. How blessed he is to be in a home where his mother and father are committed to one another. My son seeing my love, care, and concern for my wife is a priority and I hope it becomes a priority in his life. For Natives, the absenteeism of fathers is our biggest social crisis. We have a responsibility to change this.”

Haddon interjected, “My parent’s relationship has shown me how to treat my family in the future and my wife. How they constantly love each other. When they have a difference of opinion, I know they will reconcile it with each other. They are clear examples for me.”

Patrick McClung (Comanche) coaches both baseball and football alongside Mat McIntosh. Like Mat, he is also a pastor and the father of five, including one son Joshua with Dandy Walker Syndrome, who along with Patrick’s Kiowa/Comanche wife, is regarded as the spiritual center of the family.

“He always makes you believe everything is possible. I see my boys pick him up and carry him. He has profoundly changed us in more ways than we can count. As many championships as we have won, nothing supersedes the victories we have had with our special needs son.”

Patrick’s oldest son Andrew recently signed a college football scholarship to Southern Nazarene University after a stellar high school career on both the field and in the classroom. Like the two other dads, Patrick has coached all of his children during their youth league days and feels it a great privilege to continue to coach them and their friends at the high school level.

“My children share me with many other kids. As Natives we take care of our extended families. Even their friends. We become parents to many. We are pleased to have many kids call us dad and mom. That is what sports are about. One day we won’t play. The greatest accolades for me are watching the kids achieve.”

Andrew it seems has taken his father’s example continuously to heart. As I spoke to him a week later at his high school sports banquet he explained to me the importance of the next stage of his life that was quickly approaching, “As an Indian, I know that when I go to university this Fall and step on the field I am not just playing for myself and my family. I am playing for my tribes and for all Indian people. I have the same mentality in the classroom. I have a responsibility.”

His remarks brought me back to something his father had previously stated, “Indians grow up in a spiritual world. Our kids are warriors. They have it within them to go and go. The greatest battle is what is between our own two ears, not our physical nature.”

Common themes abound throughout the conversations I held with these fathers and sons. All of the boys had volunteered their time with others, while all of the dads had done the same. All feel they have a continuous responsibility to give back in one form or another. All the boys have excelled academically. Their fathers all have long standing, committed marriages and have accepted responsibility for any failings they have had in their lives. All the boys learned the importance of being humble from their fathers by their example and through the young men’s own actions I have seen this trait as front and center in their lives.

As my wife reads this in the aftermath of the tornado wrought destruction of her home town, I can see on her face and in her mannerisms a renewed feeling of calm and hope; a lightening of her heart. It is a remembering of sorts for a woman whose Indian father has always stood by her side from the time of her birth to the present day; a bond of love that exists as an example to all.

Unlike those who have allowed me to share a brief glimpse of their lives here, I was not raised by my father. His involvement in the drug trade took his life when I was still young. Even so, he left me two incredible foundations that have greatly comforted me in my life, the first gift being that of my Indian community. The second and most important present being the knowledge that through his absence in my life, accompanied by the pain and longing that this created, I would always be present in the lives of my own children.

Today, our hearts go out to those children who have lost their fathers (and mothers) in the recent tragedy and to the many little ones who are continually impacted by the tornado of fatherlessness that grips many of our tribal communities and weakens our warrior grounds. May this coming Father’s Day be a time of renewal in Indian Country.

Shilombish Holitopa ma. Pimanukfila-hvt oklhilit kania-hoka. Ish-pi-o-tomashke.

Cedric Sunray is a culturally, socially, linguistically, politically, and generationally connected member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians and father of four little Indians.