Highlighting Native Athletes: NDNSports is a True Success Story

Courtesy of NDNSports - NDNSports staffers, from left, Reid Williams (Cherokee) and Brent Cahwee (Pawnee).

Highlighting Native Athletes: NDNSports is a True Success Story

The NDNSports.com origin story is similar to Facebook’s, except it’s older, much less controversial and not (yet) valued at several billion. NDNSports was created in 2000 by a couple of college students at Haskell Indian Nations University who shared a vision of promoting Native American athletes to Native youth and to provide an outlet for inspirational reading.

Much of its volunteer staff maintain full-time jobs while putting in hours supporting their cause. They’ve been on the front lines for many historical moments pertaining to American Indian athletics, including Bronson Koenig’s game-winning shot for Wisconsin in the NCAA tourney this year.

The NDNSports website and social media accounts have reached major milestones in recent years: 3 million monthly page-views on its website and a new high of 1 million for a week during March Madness this year on Facebook.

Despite the dot com boom according to co-founder Brent Cahwee, “the website never had a business plan; it was never about making money and doesn’t have plans to capitalize on its growing numbers.”

The site has found success without jumping into controversy. In an era where the Redskins name has dominated sports headlines relating to Native Americans, NDNSports hasn’t yet written an article on that issue. “There’s already enough out there,” Cahwee says.

Neither Cahwee (Pawnee) or John Harjo (Muscogee Creek), the original duo behind NDNSports, had any experience or training in journalism. They just loved sports and felt many Natives knew about the older generation of athletes, but hardly had access to information regarding current and future generations. “There wasn’t too much Native American information and most Native newspapers he was aware of published negative news and very little sports,” Cahwee said. “When you opened them up, all you saw was ‘tribal chairman embezzlement or tribal council turnover.’”

They found early success during the prime of Notah Begay III’s career in professional golf. “He was winning PGA tour events left and right,” Cahwee recalls. “We can highlight him.” While they dreamed big, the original HTML website and forum never quite fit the mold of their vision: an engine that could automate Native sports news for its audience so it didn’t take round-the-clock efforts to provide daily news.

Another athlete who helped the website was Shoni Schimmel, a Umatilla Indian who became recognized throughout Indian country for her play at Louisville and now the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. “NDNSports became the central distribution point for all news pertaining to her famous run to the national championship game,” he says.

In 2014, another Native American athlete was making waves in college basketball: Preston Wynne, a Spokane Indian playing for Vanguard University. He became the first-ever Native to win NAIA Division I Tournament MVP en route to capturing the school’s first championship. Cahwee and a cohort of NDNSports staff made the trip to Kansas City and stormed the court. “It was really cool to be sharing that [experience],” Cahwee said. Back in the media room following the game, a ‘what do you know about this guy? conversation regarding Wynne started.

They believe they provided information that led to the Associated Press’ Native American-centered lede. And days later, a writer from Sports Illustrated used the website to contact Cahwee, which led to a short article and courtesy photo in the magazine.

Again, they had no complaints. In their minds, they were able to educate, help preserve history and help write it. “We don’t try to hog the news,” Cahwee says. “We want these publications to write about Native athletes.” He supports that train of thought with an analogy geared toward alerting the masses, comparing NDNSports.com to a producer for the movie “Running Brave,” based on Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills. “It didn’t matter who produced that movie. At the end of the day, people don’t know who the producer of ‘Running Brave’ was, but they know the story.”

One of the more tedious tasks is finding Native athletes. “It started out as a guessing game, but later became more refined,” Cahwee says. “When we first started, we had no idea. We’d go to each college website, go through their roster and look for a traditional Native American name. This was a painstaking process.”

Their ties to Haskell led to many connections with Natives across the country, who knew who their tribes’ college athletes were. They gained other leads from family members of these athletes posting their forum. Since Facebook took off, it’s been much easier, Cahwee said. “We don’t really have to search as much as we used to. It just kind of comes to us through social media, or the many relationships we’ve built over the years.”

The next big idea for Indian sports: They want to provide a How-to guide to help Native athletes understand how college recruiting works. “You really gotta self-promote yourself more to get a look from even NAIA colleges,” Cahwee says. Perhaps he’ll then be creating more work for his crew.

That’s inspirational in itself.

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