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Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

The Maryland Terrapins volleyball team started the 2021 season with an impressive win streak, which included arguably the program’s biggest win against No. 2 Wisconsin.

One of the key reasons the Division I program rolled early and head into conference play with only one loss is the dominant play of senior middle blocker Rainelle Jones, Peguis First Nation descendent. Jones, 21, set season highs with 11 kills against Temple and 11 blocks against Wisconsin. The 6-foot-3-inch star leads the nation with 1.9 blocks/set and was recently named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.

It wasn’t until Sept. 26 that Maryland lost its first match at Minnesota.

Jones believes one of her major accomplishments was committing to Maryland as a ninth grader in high school then soon playing every match.

“During my time at Maryland, my main volleyball accomplishments were continuing to be dominant on the court each year, making my way to be on the leaderboard with kills and blocks,” she said. “This year, I’m helping Maryland become the best blocking team in the Big Ten, captain for the team, and continuing to raise awareness about our country's social injustice.”

Rainelle was featured in a video through Maryland Athletics. She followed her dad, Thomas Jones, to his alma mater. Thomas was a star basketball player and ACC conference legend for the Terrapins from 1984-86.

Indigenous core values can define student athletes in how they relate to their world.

“What was taught in my family about Indigenous core values is learning about our history and culture,” Jones said. “When ready, taking the next step to learning about the reasons for our colors, the responsibilities of a Native American and keeping the culture alive.”

Mom and dad with their young jingle dress dancer Rainelle Jones. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Jones)

Jones said her family’s history and tribe’s traditions were taught by her mother’s grandmother.

“As a young child I would attend powwows with jingle dresses made from my grandmother, as a child learning footwork, our traditional food, and music,” she said.

Maryland volleyballl star Rainelle Jones and her grandmother Rainey Gaywish at a recent sports event. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Jones)

Jones’ maternal grandmother Rainey Gaywish is originally from the Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba but changed her citizenship to the Peguis First Nation.

“I never lived on a reserve and raised my family in Winnipeg,” Rainey Gaywish told Indian Country Today. “I am retired from the faculty of the University of Manitoba in December 2017. I worked for many years developing community-based university programs for First Nation communities. I earned my doctorate in Indigenous Studies from Trent University in Ontario in 2008. I am a fourth degree Midewiwin of the Three Fires Midewiwin lodge.”

Gaywish is proud of her granddaughter’s achievements

“Her Terp’s team just won against Wisconsin for the first time in Maryland history,” she said. “My daughter sent me a clip from Twitter, Rainelle’s blocking and love for her team and the game was evident in every glimpse of her on the court. In those bits of video of her, her love of life, her focus and her fierceness were wonderful to see, those characteristics are so much who she is.”

Gaywish lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba and visits Jones’s family three or four times a year.

“Over the years, my daughter and I would plan something to help connect them to their First Nation/Cree heritage, making powwow regalia for them, teaching them how to do beadwork, etc. More than that, my daughter raised her children with the Cree values of family, of respect, of accountability and self-discipline and that my mother taught to me, and that my grandmother instilled in my mother,” added Gaywish.

“One of the core values of being Indigenous is the importance of our Earth, what’s created naturally on this Earth to treat and heal our body in the most pure way,” Jones said. “In addition to keeping our world as safe as possible; the air we breathe, the water we use and surviving off of, the land we walk every day, and the creatures put on the Earth should be taken care of.”

Many elite athletes have obstacles they overcome to be where they are and knowing where they are going on their journey. An obstacle for Jones was growing up African American and Indigenous

“Growing up in a predominantly Black area was not being able to embrace my Indigenous side with comfort without mockery,” she said. :This made it much more challenging to be able to retain information my grandmother and mother gave me growing up.”

Maryland senior middle blocker Rainelle Jones (No. 2), Peguis First Nation descendent. (Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics)

“Understanding that Indigenous lives are constantly at risk in the future, partaking in the traditions myself with the help of my grandmother and mother by connecting with other indigenous people whenever I can will give me the confidence I’ve always wanted growing up,” added Jones.

Mentors guide and help athletes to achieve in and out of the athletic arena. Oftentimes the mentors are very close to home. “My parents helped me all during my life creating routines, having a strong mentality, fueling my body right in order to be the best athlete. Respecting everyone and understanding everyone is different in their own way has impacted me off the court to treat everyone equally.”

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Jones’ parents, Thomas Jones, African-American, and Michelle Jonasson, Fisher River Cree First Nation, met in Winnipeg. Thomas was playing summer professional basketball and Michelle was on the University of Winnipeg basketball team.

“We went overseas together to Spain and Finland,” Michelle said. “He was on his second pro tour after retiring. We settled down in Virginia and got married immediately. We’ve been married since 1994 and together for 30 years.”

The Jones Family from left: Ryla, Reis,Thomas, Rainelle, Michelle, Ria, and Renee (Photo courtesy of Michelle Thomas)

Thomas Jones said his daughter “Rainelle is a positive, confident, enthusiastic, encouraging, and determined young lady who has come to understand what it takes to be a leader and has embraced the role.

“This was on display as she traversed through a tough season last year. Along with having to deal with the lifestyle change as a result of the COVID pandemic, she had to deal with injuries and a losing season.”

Rainelle is the oldest daughter.

“She has always been a leader on and off the court,” Michelle said. “She has used her platform to connect with people, and to use her voice to bring awareness about the environment, equality and human rights. Her incredible energy is what differentiates her in athletics and life. She is loving and kind, determined and disciplined, and she has the strength of generations of strong women in her DNA.”

“She carries her blessings with great care. She has always dreamed about playing at the most elite levels. Her future is bright as she leads by example in every way. We could not be more proud of this trailblazer and she makes her family, county and state proud for her hard work. The future is bright with her smile in sight,” added Michelle.

Being the big sister has many responsibilities as a role model doing the right things right. Young eyes were always watching Rainelle as she moved up in her world as a rising elite college volleyball player.

“My younger siblings, Reis, Ria, Renee, and Ryla, have always supported me and are my best friends,” Rainelle Jones said. “On the court they inspire me to lead a clear path being the first born and raise the standard for our family’s athletic accomplishments. They have taught me that being myself is encouraged and the actions I take will affect my sibling’s mentality, therefore, being a positive representative will only impact my siblings positively.”

Ryla and Renee are also making a name for themselves in the sports world. Both have college offers to play basketball, Michelle said.

“Renee and Reis made the Steph Curry invite only camp. Seventy-five then top 30 and then top 8. Renee got selected to go to California for Steph's main camp. Reis was selected as an alternate,” added Michelle.

“17 year old Ria swims and does crew and softball,” said Michelle. “She is super athletic and artistic and is on the National Honor Society for art. She is super gifted and all the kids are brilliant.”

Reis is 6 feet, 10 inches tall, Ria is a 5-foot-9-inch junior, and the twins Ryla andRenee are sophomores and both over 6-foot.

“I have had the pleasure of knowing Rainelle for the last several years,” said family friend Monica Parchment. “She and my daughter played club volleyball together and are the best of friends. Many people know Rainelle from her amazing volleyball career, but I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her on the ‘she’s a wonderful human being level.’ She treasures her time with her family and friends, and nurtures those relationships to the utmost.”

Playing for Maryland has helped Rainelle Jones develop as a student athlete.

“The work being shown on the court has a lot to do off the court with learning new terms, statistics, film, and strength and recovery,” Jones said.

“The level of communication that everyone in the program has done to work towards a set goal and stick with it while giving each player the room to develop into a well-rounded student athlete is important.”

Maryland senior middle blocker Rainelle Jones (No. 2), Peguis First Nation descendent. (Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics)

"Rainelle is an absolutely incredible leader on this team,” said Adam Hughes, Maryland head coach. “She's a key part of this program's culture and identity.”

“Obviously, she has incredible skills on the court, but what makes her truly special is her presence off the court and in the locker room. A leader for all teammates, particularly the youth, Rainelle has guided so many through their time in College Park,” added Hughes.

Something truly special about Jones is her passion for social justice, which she talked about in a great feature for our Maryland athletics site.

Jones talked about having the courage to take a knee during the national anthem before a Feb. 21 match at Minnesota.

“I’ve always actually wanted to kneel during the anthem ever since I sort of got into the social justice movement, but I never had the courage to,” she told the Diamondback newspaper.

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