UNRESERVED: Native American Student-Athletes Journey to ENC Women’s Basketball Program

UNRESERVED: Native American Student-Athletes Journey to ENC Women’s Basketball Program

Looking to defy the odds, six student-athletes from the women's basketball team at Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) are using basketball as an opportunity to gain an education. Tariq Brownotter (McLaughlin, S.D.), Bailey Craig (Pleasanton, Calif.), Nahatabaa Nacoma (Chinle, Ariz.), Seniesha Sekaquaptewa (Second Mesa, Ariz.), Shante Slender (Kayenta, Ariz) and Mya Timms (Phoenix, Ariz.) each hail from Native American heritage. They have their own unique backgrounds and stories, yet there is one goal that all six have in common - they plan to return to their hometowns to improve their communities.

Sekaquaptewa, entering her junior year with the Lions this year, enrolled at ENC in 2017. The following year, Slender and Timms transferred to ENC as juniors. For the upcoming 2019-2020 campaign, the Lions welcomed Brownotter, Craig, and Nacoma as transfer student-athletes.

The first of the six student-athletes, Sekaquaptewa chose ENC because she wanted to attend a school out of state and ENC head women's basketball coach Sacha Santimano made her feel confident that she could successfully make the transition across the country. The next year, Slender committed to ENC for a similar reason. Her family had never had the opportunity to travel and she wanted to break her family's cycle of staying in the same town their whole life. This year, Brownotter decided to make the trek from the "Mount Rushmore State" to Quincy, Massachusetts heavily based on the makeup of the team. "Knowing there were other Native Americans on the team was one of the main reasons I decided to come to ENC," she explained.

According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, data indicates that 17% of Native Americans attain associate's degrees and only 10% earn bachelor's degrees. In 2018, the NCAA reported that less than 1% of women's basketball student-athletes identified as American Indian/Alaska Native. Of the 15 NCAA Division III student-athletes that identified as American Indian/Alaska Native, the Lions boasted three last season.

Sekaquaptewa, an elementary education major, aims to support the younger generation and become a teacher. "When I was on the reservation, I had some of the best teachers I've ever had. They showed me what it's like to positively impact students' lives," said the junior who holds dual heritage in both the Hopi and Navajo tribes. "I've had teammates that have gone out and come back to make the community better as a whole, and I want to do the same and be that example for young students."

For Slender, a member of Navajo Nation, basketball serves as a way to show others in her community that there are other outlets available rather than reverting to harmful lifestyle choices such as substance abuse. Approximately 9% of the Native American population ages 18 and older have a co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse disorder which is almost three times that of the general population, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Slender spoke on the subject, "I have a lot of family on the reservation that have struggled with mental illnesses and substance abuse, so using basketball as an avenue for myself has been great to show others that there are many other accessible outlets to you that you can use in a healthy way."

Slender is an electrical engineering major and plans to improve access to electricity in her area.

Similar to Slender, Timms and her community, the Hopi tribe, have been affected by mental illnesses. According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 21% of the Native American population ages 18 and older reported mental illnesses, compared to nearly 18% of the general population. For this reason, Timms has chosen psychology as her major as she went on to explain, "What I want to do is help people get their mind right because I want to help them all become mentally strong. When you're mentally strong, you can get through any obstacle in life."

Brownotter, who grew up on the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota, is mindful of the statistics and the fact that she is one of the few people to move on from her hometown. The junior commented on this trend, "Not a lot of people from where I'm from go to college or even graduate, so me being at ENC shows other people from my community that it's possible to attend college."

A sports management major, Brownotter plans to obtain a Master's in Physical Therapy upon graduating from ENC with the hopes of eventually opening a 24-hour gym in her community back in South Dakota.

For each of these student-athletes, Quincy, Massachusetts is the farthest away from home that they've ever lived. The transition from living on the reservation to campus-life has not been entirely smooth.

"It's been challenging leaving my family, religion, and the culture I grew up with. It's hard because I miss being surrounded by other Native Americans which has been my comfort zone, but I'm trying to be that role model that people from my community look up to," said Nacoma, a junior transfer to ENC and also a member of Navajo Nation. "Living outside of my comfort zone has been challenging and scary, but I'm furthering myself to help make a difference back home and to show other girls and boys that it's possible to get a degree and go back and make a difference."

Over the summer, Nacoma worked with "Offices of Diné Youth", an organization that's mission is "to advocate, educate, and develop resilient healthy generations of youth through partnerships to balance and live in a diverse society". She reflected, "Working for Offices of Diné Youth, I saw a lot of kids in unfortunate conditions. I became more aware of the issues within the Navajo Nation. It really motivated me to want to help and give back."

A social work major at ENC, she plans to earn a Master's in Social Work upon graduation and improve the community within the Navajo Nation.

Craig, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, is the only one of the six student-athletes who didn't grow up on a reservation. However, after researching more about her heritage and talking to her teammates about what it was like growing up on the reservations, she wants to provide support to young women on a reservation through the game of basketball. "My dream job would be to coach high school basketball on a reservation. Basketball has impacted my life in such a positive way, I want to do the same and change young women's lives through the sport," she said.

The game of basketball has provided a pathway for these student-athletes to gain a college education so that they can improve their hometown communities. Through the mentorship of ENC head women's basketball coach Sacha Santimano, these student-athletes look to grow and mature through their collegiate journey.

"I hope to continue to provide support and challenge them, to give them new opportunities, and see them grow into strong, powerful women," said Santimano. "It would mean a lot to see their future successes. Seeing them overcome challenges, obstacles and really defy statistics makes me so proud of them."