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Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

The madness of March has set the table for a college basketball championship weekend in Minnesota that fans across the country are drooling over.

The NCAA Women’s Final Four is in Minneapolis and while the spotlight will be on Friday’s games between Stanford/Connecticut and South Carolina/Louisville and Sunday’s subsequent championship game; the weekend has been Indigenized and is set to feature a number of Native elements.

A land acknowledgement, videos showcasing Minnesota Native communities before and during games, and a halftime ceremony, among other activities planned.

Outside of the games themselves, there is a learning lab session during the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association convention that will discuss why Native athletes are underrepresented in the NCAA and how coaches can better recruit Indian Country.

Additionally, a youth clinic with HOOP Medicine will bring in some of the best Native women's basketball players from years past, including Ryneldi Becenti, Navajo, Tahnee Robinson, Northern Cheyenne, Jude Schimmel, Umatilla, and others.

Brent Cahwee, Pawnee, founder of and member of the Indigenous Athletics Advancement Council, described these women as “legends” of the game and that they will be around all weekend for the activities in a Facebook post.

“These Legendary native ladies, both recent and from the past, represent the NCAA athletes who helped pave the way for Native Athletes,” he wrote.

On top of it all, 150 tickets have been provided for each game to Native youth to attend both semifinal games and the championship game.

It’s all being put on by the aforementioned Indigenous Athletics Advancement Council whose mission is to “educate, promote, empower, and activate Indigenous peoples and communities around movement, physical fitness, and sport.”

The group has partnered with the NCAA in the past, creating a Native American Heritage Month publication that is on the NCAA website and was shared with member institutions.

For major championship events like the NCAA tournament Final Four, a local organizing committee is formed months in advance to help facilitate and shape the weekend. One council member, Jessie Stomski Seim, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was on the committee and pushed to Indigenize the weekend.

The council said the NCAA has been very receptive and supportive and outside of dealing with organizational red tape, things have gone smoothly leading up to this weekend.

One of the highlights of the weekend will be the learning lab session with college coaches from around the country. Nicole Been, Muscogee (Creek) Citizen, said she hopes the session creates awareness and dispels myths and barriers when it comes to recruiting Native athletes.

“We're also gonna talk about retainment. Once you do have a Native American or an Indigenous student athlete in your space, how can you ensure the success of that student athlete? What are the unique needs of that student athlete?,” Been said. “What are some educational points that you need to understand about the Indigenous or the Native American culture in general?”

Along with the educational aspects and raising awareness, she hopes coaches leave knowing that there are a lot of great athletes across Indian Country who can contribute and play at a high level.

While coaches and scouts have barriers when it comes to recruiting in Indian Country, there is more Native athletes can do to stand out in crowded recruiting fields.

Natalie Welch, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said Natives in general tend to be more humble and young Native athletes need to try not to be scared and promote themselves.

“Have a video of your highlights, have something you can share with coaches, something that you can really use to just promote yourself,” Welch said.

She added not to forget about taking care of the education side of things as well.

“Take care of the school too. Like don't slack on the school part, cause you have to have that in line If you're gonna succeed at the college level,” she said.

Directing the youth clinic Saturday is Dominic Tiger-Cortes, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and he said it’s the thing he’s most looking forward to as well as meeting the former “legends” of Native women’s basketball. It’s his first time at a major event like the Final Four and he is soaking it all in.

“I'm pretty much taking everything in but I would say for real just doing the camp on Saturday. Then secondly, would be to really connect with a lot of the legends that are here in town that we invited out that are going to be kind of recipients of being honored finally by the NCAA,” Tiger-Cortes said. “A lot of these legends here have been grinding for a while with little to no recognition and so I'm just happy that the IAAC can provide that for them now.”

Beyond this weekend and the Women’s Final Four, the council is looking to continue to expand its efforts in the future through all divisions of collegiate athletics, as well as professional leagues.

Aside from raising awareness for recruiting Native athletes, the council wants to create space for professional development as well and show Native youth there is more than one path to the big leagues.

“I want these athletes to realize you may not go pro in your sport, but you can be a vice president of community relations for, you know, the Arizona Diamondbacks,” Welch said. “There's so many things that you can do with sport and really engage and kind of engage with your community as well as, just help these professional leagues.”

The effort to continue educating never stops too.

“We partnered with the NCAA and provided some educational documents, but how can we get into other spaces and provide this education where there's a true awareness and a true change and help institutions at the professional and the collegiate level truly embrace Native American people and the culture,” Been said.

Starting with Indigenizing the Women’s Final Four, there seems to be little doubt that the Indigenous Athletics Advancement Council is only getting started.

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