Skip to main content

Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

Across the U.S. and Canada, Indigenous athletes have left indelible marks at all levels of competition, across countless sports.

Launched Tuesday, Feb. 1, the North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of Fame will celebrate and honor the achievements of Indigenous individuals and teams for their respective successes in athletics.

For some time now, longtime prep basketball coach Dan Ninham, Oneida, has looked at various halls of fame across the country and Canada; including the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, and other state and provincial halls of fame.

Dan Ninham, Oneida, is a freelance writer based out of Red Lake, Minnesota. You may contact him at coach.danninham@gmail.com.

One thing that piqued his interest into halls of fame is the fact that his great-grandfather, Martin Wheelock, Oneida, was inducted into the aforementioned hall of fame at Haskell. Wheelock played on the Carlisle Indian School football team and was a captain of the team in 1899.

To Ninham’s knowledge, there wasn’t a hall of fame for Indigenous athletes of North America. He reached out to a number of the halls of fame and said he received support from them as well as athlete nominations for his new venture.

“They support us as well. We're looking at recognizing and honoring those athletes and teams that have impacted on the national, international, provincial, professional levels,” Ninham said. “So it's more than just your state Hall of Fame or more than just a provincial Hall of Fame. And that's what we've put together.”

Related:
Winter Olympics feature three Indigenous women
Flying High: Dene snowboarder added to Canada’s Olympics roster
Indigenous Bowl showcases best of Indian Country

Ninham has been involved in Indigenous athletics for more than 40 years and played collegiate basketball. Along with his wife Susan, Red Lake Ojibwe, they were coordinators for the Wings of the Great Lakes Indian Youth Running Project and have seen a number of great runners in their day.

This new hall of fame is just one more way to give these Indigenous athletes recognition.

“Looking at all of the elite, Indigenous athletes that we work with, I just thought this would be another way to acknowledge and recognize them,” Ninham said.

Watch: Dan Ninham talks new hall of fame with ICT

The inaugural class features 60 inductees across five different categories: athletes, coaches, builders, media, officials and teams. The majority of the inductees are represented in the athlete category but Ninham wanted to take his own approach by adding the others.

One category, builders, includes those who are in charge of sustainable programs and who make major contributions to advancing Indigenous athletics. The inaugural group includes the 7G Foundation, which puts on the annual Indigenous Bowl; Oren Lyons, Onondaga Nation, the honorary chairman of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team; and Sam McCracken, Sioux and Assiniboine Tribes, who founded and is the general manager of Nike’s N7 program.

Among the inaugural class is Becki Wells-Staley, Blackfeet and Blood, who was one of the top high school and eventually collegiate cross country and track and field runners. Coming out of North Dakota, Wells-Staley won NCAA Division-I national titles in the Indoor Women’s Mile and the Outdoor Women’s 1500m.

She said competing with the best of the best and winning those championships at the University of Florida were some of the more special moments.

“Looking back at my career, of course, NCAA championships are always really special,” Wells-Staley said. “Those don't come by often.”

Wells-Staley was previously inducted into the University of Florida Athletics Hall of Fame but said getting the call and being recognized in the North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of Fame was just as special.

“It's special because to do something that recognizes your journey and representing the Native American people in athletics is, you know, that's a little bit different than just the athletics from the University of Florida or the state of North Dakota, and those are special too,” she said. “But to think that you're an example for a younger generation of native athletes is just an honor.”

Dan Ninham_Segment_02-01-22

Now a cross country coach at Division-III Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, Wells-Staley is teaching her craft to the next generation of runners.

Another aspect that sets apart the North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of Fame is there is no statutory wait period in order to be inducted and athletes can be currently playing and still be inducted.

One example of that is Katie Taylor, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe, who competes in various throw competitions in track and field at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Taylor won the national championship in weight throw during the 2021 indoor season at the NCAA Division II Indoor Track & Field Championships, as well as All-America honors.

While she wasn’t in the inaugural induction class, it likely won’t be long before she is.

Another is National Hockey League coach, Craig Berube, Cree, who won the Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues during the 2018-19 season.

Ninham doesn’t plan to put a limit on the number of people or teams who can be inducted into the North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of Fame and plans to have induction classes annually. A Dec. 1 deadline for next year’s nominations is currently the plan.

In recognizing the modern Indigenous athlete, Ninham hopes to educate others that there are Indigenous athletes beyond Jim Thorpe or Billy Mills who are also doing amazing things.

“So many people they talk about, ‘You know there's only Jim Thorpe,’ ‘There's only Billy Mills out there,’ they really don't know,” Ninham said. “This is one way to share that education of all Indigenous athletes that are out there that have contributed at a high level, at an elite level. They're all around us.”

Ninham is a frequent contributor to ICT. You can read his content here.

There will be a virtual ceremony at some point in the future for the inaugural class and Ninham doesn’t see the hall of fame having a physical facility in the future.

Profiles of those inducted into the North American Indigenous Athletic Hall of Fame can be viewed at its website.

Indian Country Today - bridge logo

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.